Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
ST. JOHN THE DIVINE.
The Revelation of St. John.
THE RIGHT REV. W. BOYD CARPENTER, D.D.,
Lord Bishop of Ripon.
INTRODUCTION TO THE REVELATION OF ST. JOHN THE DIVINE.
ST. JOHN THE DIVINE.
II.THE DATE AND TIME OF WRITING.
III.SCHOOLS AND PRINCIPLES OF INTERPRETATION.
IV.GENERAL SCOPE OF THE BOOK.
I. The Author.—The general opinion of the Church of Christ has accepted the Apocalypse as the work of John the Apostle, but this general opinion has been called in question. Our space can only allow us to lay before our readers a brief resumé of the reasons which have been urged on either side. For convenience it will be as well to ask the following questions:—
(1) Was the Writer’s name John?—At first sight it would seem that there could be but one answer to this question. The book announces itself as written by a person whose name was John. Four times over does the name occur (Revelation 1:1; Revelation 1:4; Revelation 1:9; Revelation 22:8).
Is there any reason for questioning the witness thus given by the book itself? It has been asserted that the writer does not claim to be John, but only “gives a report of a revelation which John had received” (Scholten). It is perfectly true that a writer might thus dramatically represent the Apostle John as the seer of the revelation; but such possibility is no proof that it was so, and certainly cannot be entertained in the total absence of all proof. The reiteration of the name four times is out of harmony with this conjecture; and the theory would not, as Gebhardt has remarked, be applied to any other book of the New Testament. Would any serious reply be “thought necessary should it occur to some one to reject the First Epistle to the Corinthians, because from such passages as 1Corinthians 1:13, it does not follow that the author identifies himself with Paul, but gives (1Corinthians 1:1-2), after the manner of an introduction, a report of an Epistle which the Apostle wrote?”
We may assume, then, that the writer’s name was John.
(2) Was the Writer John the Apostle.—It is round this question that we meet the most serious conflict.
(a) It is admitted on all hands, even by those who oppose the apostolic authorship of the book, that the great consensus of early opinion regarded the writer as St. John the Apostle. “From the time of Justin Martyr to that of Irenæus and the great Fathers, the Apocalypse was recognised as a production of the Apostle.” Such is the opinion of Keim (Jesu v. Nazara). “We find the Revelation unhesitatingly attributed to him (St. John) by the Fathers from the middle of the second century downwards; by Justin Martyr, Irenæus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and others” (Bleek). The opinion of the third century was the same. Origen, whose opposition to millenarianism adds value to his testimony, Cyprian, Lactantius, and others, acknowledge the Apocalypse as the work of St. John.
Setting aside the opinion of Marcion, and of the unimportant sect of the Alogi (see Introduction to the First Epistle to St. John), doubts respecting the apostolic authorship seem to have commenced with Dionysius of Alexandria; these doubts, which were echoed hesitatingly by Eusebius, were based not on historical or critical, so much as upon doctrinal grounds: the dread of millenarianism created a wish to discredit the book which appeared to lend such weight to the disliked doctrine. It is needless to follow the history of this controversy; it is enough to notice that the first breach of this continuous early opinion in favour of the apostolic authorship grew out of doctrinal prejudice rather than candid examination.
(b) In later years, the controversy has been fought from different bases of operation. The conflict respecting the authorship of the Fourth Gospel (see Introduction to St. John’s Gospel) has complicated the dispute. It seemed to some impossible to believe that the Fourth Gospel and the Apocalypse proceeded from the same pen. The divergence in style and language was, in their view, too great to admit of their being written by the same man, even though that man were an Apostle. If the Gospel was the work of St. John, the Apocalypse could not be. The generally accepted opinion that St. John wrote the Apocalypse was assailed by those who, in their wish to preserve their faith in the apostolic authorship of the Fourth Gospel, were ready to sacrifice the Book of Revelation. This was substantially the view adopted by Neander, Lücke, Ewald, Bleek, Düsterdieck, and others. In opposition to these, others were ready to adopt the other hypothesis: they accepted the view that the two books could not have been the work of one and the same writer; but they preferred to sacrifice the Gospel: the Apocalypse was the work of St. John; the Gospel, therefore, could not be. Such was the view of those who, like Baur, aimed at discrediting the Fourth Gospel, or who wished to support the theory of a designed antagonism between the school of St. John and that of St. Paul. Neither of these parties—those who would sacrifice the Apocalypse to the Gospel, and those who would sacrifice the Gospel to the Apocalypse—represent the most recent phase of the controversy. Another class of thinkers arose who felt that the witness which the Fourth Gospel and the Revelation alike gave to the Person of Christ was too strong to be allowed the authority of an Apostle by those who had formed other and lower conceptions of the Jesus of the Gospels. They saw no glimpses of His heavenly glory and majesty in the synoptical Gospels. They found that the Book of Revelation was full of them. The Christ of the Apocalypse was the Word of God, the King of Kings; the Christ of the Gospels was One who came not to be ministered to, but to minister. The portrait given in the Gospels of “the loving and amiable Son of Man,” as the Divine Son of God was patronisingly styled, was not to be found in the Apocalypse; such a book could not have been written by one who personally knew the gentle and self-sacrificing Prophet of Galilee—least of all, perhaps, by the beloved disciple. Such is the view of more recent critics, and advanced with varying power and arguments by Volkmar, Hoekstra, and Scholten. The book was a forgery, or at best the composition of some other John—not of John the Apostle. Besides, it was urged, the Apostle could not have been the author, for it is clear that the writer lived in Asia Minor, whereas the Apostle John never was in Asia Minor at all.
Such is, perhaps, the most recent phase of the controversy.
(c) We have not space to do more than touch but briefly, and only upon a few of the arguments advanced against the apostolic authorship of the book. It will, perhaps, be best to specify three or four.
(i.) St. John the Apostle, it is said, never resided in Asia Minor; he could not, therefore, have been the author of a book which is undoubtedly the work of one resident there.
It is proverbially difficult to prove a negative: it is increasingly difficult when only negative evidence can be adduced, and this is all that can be appealed to. The argument, if argument it can be called, runs thus: the residence of St. John in Asia Minor is not mentioned by those whom we might have expected to mention it: therefore, St. John did not reside there. To use the words of a modern critic (Mr. Matthew Arnold), “But there is the rigorous and vigorous theory of Prof. Scholten, that John never was at Ephesus at all. If he had been, Papias and Hegesippus must have mentioned it: if they had mentioned it, Irenæus and Eusebius must have quoted them to that effect. As if the very notoriety of John’s residence at Ephesus would not have disproved Irenæus and Eusebius from advancing formal testimony to it, and made them refer to it just in the way they do. Here, again, we may be sure that no one judging evidence in a plain fashion would ever have arrived at Dr. Scholten’s conclusion; above all, no one of Dr. Scholten’s great learning and ability” (Contemporary Review, vol. xxv., p. 988).
To this also we may add Gebhardt’s words:—“No one in the second century could believe that the Apostle John was the author of the Apocalypse, without at the same time believing that he lived in Asia Minor; and in like manner, the acknowledgment of the Apocalypse as the Apostle’s from the time of Justin Martyr downwards, made prominent by Keim, is an acknowledgment of his residence in Asia Minor, and inferentially at Ephesus.”
(ii.) There are, it is stated, traces of non-apostolic authorship in the book.
(α) The manner in which the Apostles are spoken of (see Revelation 18:20; Revelation 21:14) is thought to be inconsistent with the opinion that the Apostle wrote it. The Apostles are mentioned with a degree of objectivity, and are assigned a prominence which is unlikely if an Apostle were the writer. But with regard to the last, if St. John describes the foundations of the heavenly Jerusalem as bearing the names of the twelve Apostles, St. Paul speaks of the Church being built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets (Ephesians 2:20). The imagery is distinctly apostolic; and if the Apostles are mentioned with “objectivity” in the Apocalypse, are they not mentioned with an equal, if not greater, degree of objectivity by St. Matthew? (Matthew 10:2-4.)
(β) But, it is argued, there is no hint given throughout the book that the writer is an Apostle. If St. John were the writer, would he not betray himself somewhere as the beloved disciple? Should we not have some allusion to his intimacy with his Master, or to some circumstance connected with the life and ministry of Christ? In reply, it is enough to remark that the nature of the book would not lead us to expect such allusions. He writes as a Prophet, not as an Apostle. It would be as idle to expect some allusion to the circumstances of Milton’s political life in the Paradise Lost. “The Apocalypse declares itself not to be the work of an Apostle in the same sense as Schiller’s poetry declares itself not to be the work of a professor at Jena” (Gebhardt).
But it may be further urged that there are not wanting certain characteristic allusions which reveal the writer. The allusions to the piercing of the Saviour’s side (Revelation 1:7; comp. John 19:34), and to the washing, or cleansing (Revelation 1:5; Revelation 7:13-14; Revelation 22:14—see Note there—John 13:8-10), are not to be overlooked; and more than these may be detected by a careful student.
(γ) There is no trace of Apostolic authority.
If we are not to expect personal reminiscences, we surely should expect the air of official authority. But the answer is, Do we not find this? The language is surely that of one who does not doubt that his name will carry a guarantee with the book. (Comp. Prof. Davidson’s article in Kitto’s Biblical Cyclopædia.)
(iii.) The Christology of the book is described as non-apostolic. The picture which the Apocalypse gives of Jesus Christ is not that of the Gospels. In the Gospels we have the loving and gentle Son of Man; in the Apocalypse we have the Word of God, whose eyes are as a flame of fire, and whose mouth a sharp sword, &c. Is not the whole conception of the kingly Christ thus portrayed the product of a later age? “The picture of Christ which here comes before us seems to presuppose a conception so perfectly free, that it can only belong to a later Christianity” (Scholten). “The apotheosis of Christ is too strong to be ascribed to a contemporary and disciple of Jesus” (quoted in Gebhardt).
Such objections as these arise from a fundamental misconception of the character and work of Jesus Christ. The Christ of the Gospels is not the colourless creation which has been evolved out of the thought of men living eighteen centuries afterwards. The Christology of the Apocalypse is distinct enough, but it does not differ from the Christology of St. Paul; and it is in complete harmony with the lofty and divine utterances of our Lord Himself even in the synoptical Gospels. Time and space would fail us in illustrating this position; it will suffice to refer to two or three passages, which might be multiplied: Matthew 25:31; Matthew 26:13; Luke 5:20; Luke 7:8-9; Luke 7:23; Luke 7:35; Luke 9:41; Luke 10:16-20.
(iv.) The divergence in style between the Revelation and the Fourth Gospel demands a few words. We have spoken of those critics, who, in their desire to preserve the authority of the Gospel, have been willing to throw overboard the apostolic authorship of the Apocalypse Is it necessary to do this? It has been shown that the external evidence is in favour of the apostolic authorship. In the language of Prof. Davidson, “With the limited stock of early ecclesiastical literature that survives the wreck of time we should despair of proving the authenticity of any New Testament book by the help of early witnesses if that of the Apocalypse be rejected as insufficiently attested.” Is there any reason in the internal character of the book sufficient to reverse this verdict? Or, in other words, assuming (and the stormy controversy has rather increased than diminished the right to the assumption; see Introduction to St. John’s Gospel) the apostolic authorship of the Fourth Gospel, is there any ground for believing that the Apocalypse could not have proceeded from the same writer? There are no doubt strongly marked differences. We have not space to touch on the whole question. One or two points call for notice. There are differences of language; there are “anomalies,” “awkward dispositions of words,” “peculiar constructions;” “the Greek is moulded by the Hebrew tendencies of the writer.” This is no doubt largely the case; but there has been often a want of appreciativeness at the root of some criticisms like these: some violations of grammatical construction have been set down to ignorance on the part of the writer, when it is clear that they were intentional. Notably, the language of Revelation 1:4 is beyond all doubt designedly ungrammatical; indeed, as Bishop Lightfoot has pointed out, were it not so, the writer would not have possessed sufficient literary power to construct a single sentence. Nor has sufficient weight been allowed to the different characters of the two books, or the interval of time which elapsed between their writing. The highly wrought rapture of the seer, when beholding the visions of the Apocalypse indicates a mental state in which volitional control is at the minimum, and the automatic action of the mind is left free. At such a time the images and associations which have been originally imbedded in the memory are those which rise uppermost to clothe the thoughts. Thus the strong Hebrew colouring is precisely what we should expect from one who, of ardent temperament, has spent the whole of his earlier life in Palestine, and among those who were constantly talking over Messianic hopes and prophecies. (Comp. John 1:38-41.) The force of this is not invalidated by saying that the seer did not write the visions as he saw them, but recorded them afterwards. In the first place, it is merely an assumption to affirm this; in the next, even were it true, the man who records such visions must recall the whole mental condition in which he was at the time of vision, and would preserve in his record the characteristics of such a state of mind. Nor can much stress be laid upon the fact that the writer was not young. The visions of God are given to the old as well as to the young. The loftiest revealings were given to Moses when he had passed fourscore years: and, even from a merely human point of view, it is possible for a man of sixty to retain the fire and warm imagination of youth. Even in modern life, when the faculties are too often drudged into imbecility by forced and premature development, and deprived of their full and ultimate power by being made reproductive when they ought to be remaining receptive, we may find the powers of imagination survive the strain and incessancy of toil; indeed, in some cases the imaginative powers have gathered force till the line of the threescore years has been passed. Edmund Burke was sixty when he wrote his Reflections on the Revolution in France, and none will condemn him for deficiency in imagination. It was not in the ardour of youth that Dante wrote the Divine Comedy. The conditions of ancient and Eastern life were probably much more favourable to the preservation and quiet ripening of the powers of thought and imagination. The truth is that there is nothing so deceptive as the comparison between the ages and powers of different writers; there is no standard which can be fairly used as a measure. Some men of sixty are, in mental force, more nearly allied to men of forty than to those of their own age; and the addition of twenty or five-and-twenty years brings them to the mellow and quiet autumn-time of their life.
The Apocalypse may be “sensuous,” full of “creative fancy,” “objective,” and “concrete;” the Gospel may be “calm,” “mystic,” “spiritual,” and delighting in “speculative depth”; but differences equally great may be found in the works of other writers. Literature supplies numberless instances of such varieties. “It is strange,” wrote Lord Macaulay, “It is strange that the Essay on the Sublime and Beautiful, and the Letter to a Noble Lord should be the productions of one man;” yet no one has been found to doubt that they were both written by Edmund Burke. The writings of De Quincey supply examples. Let any one compare the Autobiographic Sketches, or The Confessions of an Opium Eater, with one of the little flights of fancy—such as the Daughter of Lebanon—written under different conditions, and he will find how much diversity may be found in the works of the same writer. And, not to go beyond the Gospels, might it not be said that there is a great separation in tone and thought between our Lord’s discourses in Matthew 23-25 and the Sermon on the Mount? We have, then, in the two books—the Gospel and the Apocalypse—different subject - matter, vision instead of history; a wide interval of time—some twenty or twenty-five years; and, with this interval of time, a changed atmosphere of associations and influences, Greek instead of Hebrew: these in themselves would account for divergences greater even than we find.
If we can thus account for the differences we meet with, we have to remember that there are resemblances in the two books which can scarcely be accidental, and which, found in two independent books, would have suggested to some shrewd critic the theory of a common authorship. There is a strong resemblance in language and imagery: both books delight in the words “witness” (martyr), “to overcome,” “to keep” (the word of God), “sign” (sémeion), “dwell,” or tabernacle (in this last case the coincidence is lost sight of in the English version, because the word “dwell” is used instead of tabernacle, or “tent”), “true” (alethinos), (John 1:9; John 19:35; Revelation 3:14; Revelation 19:9).
There is a similarity in the terms used to describe our Lord. He is the Word (John 1:1-3; Revelation 19:13); the Lamb (John 1:29; Revelation 5:6); the Shepherd (John 10 throughout; Revelation 7:17); the Bridegroom (John 3:29; Revelation 19:7; Revelation 21:2); similar images are used—the Living Water (John 4:10; John 7:38; and Revelation 7:17; Revelation 21:6; Revelation 22:17); the Hidden Food, bread, or manna (John 6:32-58; Revelation 2:17); the Harvest (John 4:34; John 4:38; Revelation 14:15). The same incident—the piercing of our Lord’s side—is referred to; and the word employed, both in the Gospel and in the Apocalypse, is singularly not the word used in the LXX. version of the prophet Zechariah. There is, besides, a similar disposition towards a seven-fold arrangement of subjects in the Gospel and the Revelation. (See Introduction to St. John’s Gospel.)
Further resemblances might be pointed out. These, however, will suffice to show that Prof. Davidson, in his candid, impartial, and valuable article (see above), says no more than truth when be writes: “After every reasonable deduction, enough remains to prove that the correspondences between the Apocalpyse and the Fourth Gospel are not accidental. They either betray one author, or show that the writer of the one was acquainted with the other. These cognate phenomena have not been allowed their full force by Lücke, Ewald, De Wette, and Düsterdieck.”
To conclude. The author represents himself as John in a way, and at a time, that would naturally suggest that he either was John the Apostle and Evangelist, or wished to pass as such. The general consensus of early opinion believed that the Apostle was the writer. The doubts grew out of doctrinal prejudice; there is no reasonable ground for disputing the residence of the Apostle in Asia Minor. There are not wanting traces of personal reminiscences such as the beloved disciple would have cherished. The portrait of Jesus Christ is in complete harmony with apostolic teaching; and the difficulties which beset the theory that there were two Johns—one who wrote the Gospel, and the other the Apocalypse—are greater than those which surround the theory of a common authorship.
It is only necessary to add the attesting language of various and independent critics. “The apostolic origin of the Apocalypse is as well attested as that of any other book in the New Testament” (Davidson). “The testimony has been pronounced more absolutely convincing than can be adduced in favour of the apostolic authorship of any of the books of the New Testament” (Edinburgh Review, October, 1874).
II. The Date and Time of Writing.—The evidence for determining the date of the Apocalypse is in many respects conflicting. Any conclusion on the matter should be given with caution and hesitation, and with the full admission that the arguments which can be brought on the other side are entitled to consideration. It has been too much the practice among the supporters of different theories to insist with unwise positiveness upon their own view. Briefly, there are practically only two opinions, between which the reader must decide. The book was either written about the year A.D. 68 or 69, or about a quarter of a century later (A.D. 96), in the reign of Domitian.
The later date was that which was accepted almost uniformly by the older theologians. In favour of this early tradition has been appealed to. The most important witness (in some respects) is Irenæus, who says that “the Apocalypse was seen not long ago, but almost in our own age, towards the end of the reign of Domitian.” Other writers have been claimed as giving a support to this view by their mention of Patmos as the place of St. John’s banishment; and it is plain from the way in which Eusebius quotes the mention of the Patmos exile by Clement of Alexandria, that he associated it with the reign of Domitian. On the other hand, it must be remembered that neither Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, or Jerome, state that the banishment took place in the reign of Domitian. Tertullian, indeed, represents Domitian as recalling the exiles; and other writers affirm that the banishment took place much earlier. Theophylact, for example, declares that the Apostle was in Patmos thirty-two years after the Ascension; and the preface to the Syriac version of the Apocalypse affirms that the revelation was given to St. John in Patmos, whither he was banished by the Emperor Nero. Another tradition assigns the writing to the reign of Trajan. Epiphanius, in a passage of doubtful value, places the exile in the reign of Claudius.
On the whole, then, there is not any very certain conclusion to be drawn from the external evidence. The exile in Patmos receives ample support, but the date of the exile is hardly settled by early tradition.
Will the internal evidence help?
The advocates of the later date rely much upon the degenerate state of the Asiatic churches, as described in the Epistles to the Seven Churches. The Epistles to the Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon were written during the captivity of St. Paul at Rome, about the year A.D. 63. If, then, the Apocalypse was written in A.D. 69 or 70, we have only an interval of six or seven years to account for a striking change in the spiritual condition of the Asiatic churches. Can we believe that a Church which is so forward in love as that of Ephesus (Ephesians 3:18) can have in so short a time left its first love? Can it be believed that the Laodicean Church—whoso spiritual condition in A.D. 63 can be inferred from that of Colossæ (Colossians 1:3-4)—can have, in six brief years, forsaken their “faith in Christ Jesus, and their love to all the saints,” and become the “lukewarm” church (Revelation 3:15-16) of the Apocalypse?
It may be noticed, in passing, that the above argument assumes that the (so-called) Epistle to the Ephesians was really addressed to the Church at Ephesus; and this is by no means certain: the weight of evidence appears to incline the other way. But allowing this to pass, and, for the purpose of argument, assuming that the Epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians afford indications of the spiritual condition of these and kindred Asiatic churches, it does not seem to the writer that the above argument can be sustained. The two propositions on which its force depends are the following:—
(1)It is impossible that churches could change much for the worse in six years.
(2)A comparison between the Apocalypse and the Letters of St. Paul show a great change for the worse.
From these two propositions it is inferred that the interval must have been more than six years: a generation at least being required to account for such degeneracy. “It bespeaks a change of persons, the arrival of a new generation” (Hengstenberg).
It is believed that neither of the two propositions mentioned above can be sustained. (1) It needs no long time for the first ardour of young converts’ zeal to cool. The New Testament gives us examples of such rapid changes: the “evil eye” of a perverted teaching bewitched the Galatians (Galatians 3:1), so that the Apostle marvelled that the disciples were so rapidly turning away to another gospel (Galatians 1:6). Changes quick and real soon sweep over a religious community, especially in districts where the natural temperament is warm, impressible, and vivacious. It is not impossible that six years may make changes in the religious condition of churches.
But (2) it is more important to consider the second proposition, and to ask whether it is so certain that any such great change had taken place in the instances before us. A comparison of the Epistle to the Colossians and that to Laodicea rather leads to an opposite conclusion. Professor (now Bishop) Lightfoot has shown that the same truths need enforcing (comp. Colossians 1:15-18, and Revelation 3:14), the same practical duties are taught (Colossians 3:1, and Revelation 3:21), the same lukewarmness is the subject of caution (Colossians 4:17, and Revelation 3:19), the same denunciations are heard against the pride of life, in wealth or intellect (Colossians 2:8; Colossians 2:18; Colossians 2:23, and Revelation 3:17-18). “The message communicated by St. John to Laodicea prolongs the note which was struck by St. Paul in the letters to Colossæ. An interval of a very few years has not materially altered the character of these churches. Obviously the same temper prevails, the same errors are rife, the same correction must be applied” (Bishop Lightfoot, Epistle to the Colossians, pp. 41-44).
A similar comparison might be made between the two Ephesian Epistles. The impression left from a perusal of St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, whether addressed to that church or not, is that he was not without a fear that the warm love which prevailed among the Christians addressed might soon change: it is a love above the accidents of time and the powers of change which he desires may be theirs (Ephesians 6:24; Revelation 2:4). The area of comparison between this Epistle to the Ephesians and the Epistles to the Seven Churches becomes much wider when we regard it, in harmony with probability, as a circular letter addressed to the Asiatic churches: then the resemblances become more plain, and the so-called great change in spiritual condition disappears. It will be sufficient to mention the following: Ephesians 1:18, Revelation 3:18; Ephesians 2:6, Revelation 3:21; Ephesians 3:8, Revelation 2:9; Ephesians 3:17-19, Revelation 2:4.
Enough has been said to show that the argument from the spiritual condition of the churches lends little, or no support to the later date, but fairly strengthens the earlier.
The advocates of the earlier date adduce other internal evidence. They lay great weight upon inferences drawn from Revelation 11, 13, 17. They argue that the measuring of the Temple and the treading down of the Holy City, described in Revelation 11:1-2, is a token that Jerusalem had not yet fallen. This argument does not seem to the present writer satisfactory. The measuring of the Temple is symbolical, and it is unsafe to ground an argument upon it. The aim of the vision seems to us to point out the safety of the germ-Church during the times of desolation. The external framework, the old Jewish polity, might be swept away (Revelation 11:2; comp. Hebrews 8:13): the true spiritual germ would never die, but spring forth in fuller and freer vigour. Such a vision might indeed have preceded the fall of Jerusalem; but it might also have been given as a consolation and an instruction afterwards.
Hardly more convincing is the argument from Revelation 13, 17. In the account of the seven-headed wild beast we read of seven kings, five of whom are fallen. The seven kings are said to be the emperors of Rome. The five fallen are Augustus, Tiberius, Caius, Claudius, Nero; the one that is, is Galba. The force of this depends upon the truth of the interpretation. If the seer meant the seven kings to represent seven emperors of Rome, then the date of the Apocalypse is fixed to the age of Galba; or to that of Nero if we begin to reckon with Julius Cæsar. The former is the most correct method of reckoning. To make the sixth head Vespasian, as some would do, is, as Dr. Davidson has remarked, quite arbitrary. There is no reason for omitting Galba, Otho, and Vitellius from the reckoning. But the force of the argument for the date here depends upon the truth of the interpretation; and the foundation passages in the prophecy of Daniel, from which the Apocalyptic seer drew so much of his imagery, describe under the emblem of the wild beasts, kingdoms, or world-powers, rather than individual monarchs. Still, of course, it is possible that there may be a double interpretation—one more local, the other more general—here as well as elsewhere. But the requisite interpretation does not seem to be sufficiently clear for the purpose of argument.
Nor can the argument from silence be accepted. There is no allusion to the fall of Jerusalem in the book; but it is scarcely safe to infer that the book was therefore earlier than that catastrophe.
One other internal (so called) argument respecting date may be noticed here. Lücke cites Revelation 18:20, where the Apostles and prophets are invited to rejoice because they have been avenged on Babylon, to prove that St. John the Apostle was dead when the book was written. This is one of those prosaic errors into which even the most learned and trustworthy of literary experts are betrayed by their own acuteness.
There yet remains another class of evidence: that of language and style. Assuming the common authorship of the Fourth Gospel and the Apocalypse (see Introduction to the Gospel, and section on the Author above), we shall have very little doubt that the general probability is in favour of the Apocalypse having been written first. Not only is the Gospel marked by the sententiousness of age, and the Apocalypse by the warm colouring of earlier life, but the influence of Jewish associations is more strongly marked in the latter; while Greek influences are more distinctly traceable in the former.
The evidence on this head inclines to the earlier date, but it is not absolutely conclusive: the prevalence of Hebraic influences noticeable in the Apocalypse might well fit in with the later date. The influences of youth often re-assert themselves with startling vigour in declining years: the provincialisms and accent of boyhood have been resumed by men in the evening of life, after having been kept long in abeyance by the joint powers of control and culture. Illustrations of this will occur to the reader. But, in the instance before us, the probability seems to lie the other way: in the Apostle’s case the Hebraic influences did prevail during the early life; the Greek influences were present during his later life; and we may well believe that the Apocalypse “marks the Hebraic period of St. John’s life which was spent in the East, and among Aramaic speaking populations”; and that the Gospel was written twenty or thirty years afterwards, at the “close of the Hellenic period during which St. John lived in Ephesus, the great centre of Greek civilisation.” (See Bishop Lightfoot’s Article on “Supernatural Religion,” Contemporary Review, vol. xxv., p. 859.)
To conclude this brief summary, we may say that the general weight of evidence is in favour of the earlier date, and certainly this supposition fits in best with all the circumstances of the case.
III. Schools and Principles of Interpretation.—Before entering upon the general meaning of the book, it is desirable to lay before the reader a brief account of the different schools of Apocalyptic interpretation.
(1) Schools of Interpretation.—It is well known that there are three main systems of interpretation: these are called, from their special tendencies of thought, the Præterist, the Futurist, and the Historical.
The Præterist in general maintains that the visions of the Apocalypse relate to events and circumstances which are past: the prophecies of the book—at least in their primary intention—have been fulfilled. Among the advocates of this view may be reckoned the names of Grotius and Hammond, the learned and eloquent Bossuet, Eichhorn, Ewald, De Wette, Lücke, Düsterdieck, Professor Moses Stuart of America, and in this country the late lamented Professor Maurice, Professor Davidson, and Mr. Desprez.
The Futurist is at the opposite pole of interpretation, and maintains that the fulfilment of the book is still future, when our Lord will come again. Professor Davidson has separated the Futurists into two classes—the simple Futurist and the extreme Futurist: the difference between these classes being that the simple Futurist believes that the prophecies of the book are future in fulfilment, while the extreme Futurist holds that even the first three chapters are prophetic. Among those who have maintained the more moderate Futurist view may be mentioned De Burgh, Maitland, Benjamin Newton, Todd, and the devout Isaac Williams. The extreme Futurist view has been supported chiefly by some Irish expositors.
The Historical school holds a sort of middle place between the Præterist and Futurist. Its advocates believe that in the Apocalypse we have a continuous prophecy, exhibiting to us the main features of the world’s history: the visions therefore are partly fulfilled, partly they are in course of fulfilment, and a portion still remains unfulfilled. This view has been sustained by men of conspicuous ability. It was the interpretation which commended itself to many of the Reformers, and was favoured by Wiclif, Bullinger, Bale, and others. It was upheld with more systematic power by such distinguished writers as Mede, Vitringa, Daubuz, Sir Isaac Newton, Whiston, Bengel, and Bishop Newton: more recently it has been advocated by Hengstenberg, Ebrard, Auberlen, by Elliott and Faber, by Bishop Wordsworth and the late Dean Alford, by Barnes, Lord, and Glasgow.
It is, of course, to be understood that there are many varieties of interpretation even among those who belong to the same school of interpreters: but it would quite exceed the limits at our disposal to speak of these varieties.
Against these three schools of interpretations it is not difficult to find objections. It is hard to believe, with the Præterist, that the counselling voice of prophecy should have spoken only of immediate dangers, and left the Church for fifteen centuries unwarned; or, with the Futurist, to believe that eighteen centuries of the eventful history of the Church are passed over in silence, and that the whole weight of inspired warning was reserved for the few closing years of the dispensation. Nor, on the other hand, can we be thoroughly satisfied with the Historical school, however ably and learnedly represented. There is a certain nakedness about the interpretations often advocated by this school: the interpreter is too readily caught by external resemblances, and pays too little heed to inner spiritual and ethical principles. A mistake into which this system falls is that of bringing into prominence the idea of time. According to them, the visions of the book are pictures of occurrences to take place at a certain fixed date. Now it must never be forgotten that the question of time—the time when this or that was to happen—was one which our Lord steadily put on one side. It was not for His disciples to know the times and the seasons. The knowledge of the time of an event is insignificant compared with the knowledge of the forces, elements, and laws which combine to produce it. This seems to be our Master’s teaching to His followers all through time. Our study is to know what are the foes we have to contend against, what combinations they are likely to make, in what power they are to be confronted, what difficulties are likely to arise, what certainty there is that all difficulties will be surmounted and every foe overthrown. It matters not for us to know when these things shall be: it may be at the first watch, or midnight, or at the cock-crowing: the time is a matter of no ethical importance. It is thus St. Peter treats it: “One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” It is but the echo of His Lord’s warning. It may take a long time or a short time for the moral laws and moral forces at work in the world to bring forth a crisis period. To take St. Peter’s words as laying down a kind of prophetical “time-measure” is to fall into that fatal source of error, the conversion of poetry into prose. We are not, then, to look for any indications of time in the visions of the Apocalypse; and what might have made this very plain is the employment of proportional numbers to denote the prophetic epochs in the book. These carefully-selected numbers, always bearing a relationship to one another, and so selected that a literal interpretation of them is almost precluded, are beyond doubt symbolical, and thus in harmony with the whole character of the book. “Most numbers in the Revelation should not be taken arithmetically, but indefinitely, because they are part of the poetic costume borrowed from the Old Testament” (Davidson). The anxiety respecting the “times and seasons” has led many interpreters into voluminous errors, and has created a Thessalonian restlessness of spirit in many quarters. Infinitely more important is it to notice the moral and spiritual aspects of the book, the evil and the good principles which are described in conflict, and the features which in different ages the combat will assume.
But, though the time-interpretation of the book is thus to be placed in the background, it must not be so done as to imply that the book has no reference to occurrences which will happen in time. If some of the Historical school of interpreters have so forced the question of time into prominence as to ignore the more important ethical bearings of the book, it is no less true that critics on the other side have erred in removing the application of the book wholly out of the sphere of history, and giving it only the force of a fairy tale with a possible and doubtful moral. This is to set aside the value of the book to the Church of Christ as she moves across the vexed and stormy sea of this world’s history. The visions of the book do find counterparts in the occurrences of human history: they have had these, and they yet will have these, fulfilments; and these fulfilments belong neither wholly to the past, nor wholly to the future: the prophecies of God are written in a language which can be read by more than one generation: what was read here helped the early Christian to whom imperial Rome was the great Babylon which absorbed to herself the wealth, and the wickedness, the power and persecuting spirit of the world, to whom the emperor may have seemed as a wild beast, savage and relentless, rising out of the tumults of peoples and nations, fickle and ruthless as the sea. No less have the visions of this book consoled the mediæval saint or poet, who felt that the most influential seat of the Church had become the metropolis of worldliness when “the Prince of the New Pharisees” was seated in St. Peter’s chair, and when out of a professedly Christianised society had arisen a power aspiring to some religious culture, but fierce, wild, and wanton as the wild beast of ancient days. (Comp. Dante, Inf. xxvii. 85; and Rosetti’s Antipapal Spirit of the Italian Poets—passim). Nor is the force of the consolation exhausted: in the future, the visions of this book, showing the certain triumph of all that is good and true, in the final consummation of Christ’s kingdom, may hereafter serve to console men and women groaning under a tyranny of ungodliness more terrible and more specious than any which have preceded it, because built up of a pride which worships physical laws, while it treads under foot all moral laws, and spurns contemptuously all spiritual laws. In the past, the book has had its meaning: in the future, its meaning may grow fuller and clearer; but in the present also there is no doubt that it has its practical value for all who will reverently and patiently hear and keep the sayings of this book.
We are disposed to view the Apocalypse as the pictorial unfolding of great principles in constant conflict, though under various forms. The Præterist may, then, be right in finding early fulfilments, and the Futurist in expecting undeveloped ones, and the Historical interpreter is unquestionably right in looking for them along the whole line of history; for the words of God mean more than one man, or one school of thought, can compass. There are depths of truth unexplored which sleep beneath the simplest sentences. Just as we are wont to say that history repeats itself, so the predictions of the Bible are not exhausted in one or even in many fulfilments. Each prophecy is a single key which unlocks many doors, and the grand and stately drama of the Apocalypse has been played out perchance in one age to be repeated in the next. Its majestic and mysterious teachings indicate the features of a struggle which, be the stage the human soul, with its fluctuations of doubt and fear, of hope and love—or the progress of kingdoms—or the destinies of the world, is the same struggle in all.
(2) The Principles of Interpretation.—It will have been seen that the writer does not feel at home under the leadership of any of the three great schools of prophetical interpretation. The Church of Christ owes much to all of them, though the cause of truth has suffered much from many who have sought to be prophets when at the most they could aspire to be interpreters; but the result even of the errors of interpreters has been the slow formation of sounder views, and therefore an advance towards a clearer, because a more modest, system. There are certain principles which seem to be now very generally accepted as essential to a right understanding of the book. It is not, indeed, to be supposed that the acceptance of these principles will enable the student to unlock every mystery, or expound every symbol; but it will certainly save him from following “wandering fires.” Of these principles the chief seem to be the following:—(1) the root passages in the Old Testament prophecies must be considered; (2) the historical surroundings of the writer are to be remembered; (3) the fact that the book is symbolical must never be forgotten; (4) the obvious aim of the book to be a witness to the triumph and coming (parousia) of Jesus Christ must be recognised. These principles are simple enough, but their neglect has been only too fatally evident. The difficulty, indeed, lies rather in the application of these principles than in their acceptance. It is, perhaps, not too much to say that the Præterist school has been apt to ignore the first of these principles; the Historical school has not adequately recognised the second; and the Futurist school is in constant danger of forgetting the third; while partial views in all schools have violated or weakened the value of the last principle.
The “coming of Christ,” viewed from the human side, is a phrase which is not always to be held to one meaning: it is, in this aspect, analogous to the “kingdom of God.” “Holy Scripture, beyond all doubt, recognises potential and spiritual, as well as personal, ‘comings’ of the Lord.” “There are many comings of Christ. Christ came in the flesh as a mediatorial Presence. Christ came at the destruction of Jerusalem. Christ came, a spiritual Presence, when the Holy Ghost was given. Christ comes now in every signal manifestation of redeeming power. Any great reformation of morals and religion is a coming of Christ. A great revolution, like a thunderstorm, violently sweeping away evil to make way for the good, is a coming of Christ” (Robertson, Sermons, Fourth Series, p. 73). It is thus that the sacred writers speak as of Christ’s coming always at hand: “The judge standeth at the door;” “The coming of the Lord draweth nigh.” “So, also, our Lord speaks: “I will not leave you comfortless; I will come to you.” Thus, viewed from one aspect, the “coming of Christ” has various applications; but viewed from another aspect, it will be seen to be a phrase expressive of a simple thought, and free from all perplexing ambiguity. The coming of Christ, viewed from the divine side, is as a single act, in which all subordinate applications are included. There is no past or future with God. All that is being done, is, in one sense, done. God’s dealings, as seen by human eyes, are, as it were, projections on the page of history. An illustration may help. A telegraph cable, whether cut straight through or on the slope, will present to view exactly the same combination of copper and iron wire, gutta-percha, and tarred yarn; but in the elliptical section the elements will appear in more extended order than in the circular section: so the same features which to us appear separate and successive, when viewed from the higher level of heavenly thought, may be seen as forming parts of one act. The various advents of Christ may thus be viewed as forming elements in one Advent, which is progressive from one side, but complete from another. The morning spreads itself in every direction over the forehead of the sky, and yet is but one morning. All the varying scenes from the First Advent to the Second are but the beatings of the wings of God’s new day. “It is,” as the prophet expressed it in language of glorious paradox, “It is one day, known to the Lord, neither clear nor dark, but one day, at whose eventide it shall be light.” If this be true, there is no necessity for leaping to the conclusion that, when the sacred writers warned their hearers that the coming of the Lord was near, they were mistaken, or that they sought to sustain the fainting hopes of the early Church by expectations which have proved false. Doubtless some did not understand the full and deep meaning of the words employed: doubtless many still clung to their carnal conceptions: but the apostolic language, whether from the pen of a St. Paul, St. Peter, or St. John, expresses the wider and truer thoughts of the coming of Christ. We find them anxious to remind those to whom they wrote that the idea of an immediate visible personal coming of Christ must not be allowed to gain possession of the mind. There were forces at work which must have their way before the end would come: seeds had been planted, and these must grow: the sowing and the harvest are linked together as one in the law of growth, and are yet separate. Thus the spirit of wilfulness and impatience is rebuked when men grasp the true thoughts of God. Yet it must not be supposed that the waiting Church of Christ will be disappointed of her hope, or that the heavenly Bridegroom will not come. He will come again; and all the preliminary and subordinate advents in judgment and in comfort will then be seen to have been earnests of the fulness of His coming. The interpreters are as men who stand upon a plain to watch the sunrise. When the first veil of night is withdrawn, and the starlight is somewhat paled, the more ardent than the rest will cry, “The dawn!” but the rest answer, “Not yet.” Then when the mountain peaks begin to flame, another will cry, “The dawn!” and the rest will still reply, “Not yet.” And when the landscape around catches its true colours, another will cry, “The dawn!” but only when the great and glorious orb leaps into view will all be one in crying, “The dawn! the dawn!” So is the coming of Christ. Some look upon the faint lightening in the moral atmosphere, and say, “Christ comes!” Others look to the reflected lights of truth proclaimed in the high places of the world, and say, “Christ comes!” Others look to the general diffusion of knowledge, and say, “Christ comes!” They are right, and they are wrong: right, for it is indeed Christ who is thus enlightening the world; they are wrong, for there is a coming greater than these when He will, in fuller manifestation of Himself, tabernacle with His people as their everlasting light.
 The whole note from Bishop Waldegrave’s Bampton Lectures is worth quoting. “Holy Scripture, beyond all doubt, recognises (1) potential and spiritual, as well as personal, ‘comings’ of the Lord. See, for potential ‘comings,’ Matthew 10:23; John 21:22-23; Revelation 2:5; Revelation 2:15-16; Revelation 2:22-25; Revelation 3:3; Revelation 3:10. . . . See, for spiritual ‘comings,’ Psalm 101:2; John 14:18; John 14:21-24; Revelation 3:20. In like manner Holy Scripture recognises (2) a potential and spiritual, as distinct from a personal, ‘presence’ of Christ with His people. See Matthew 18:20; Matthew 28:20; Mark 16:20; 2Timothy 4:17. Now such potential and spiritual comings and presence will naturally, when translated, if I may so speak, into the language of imagery, assume the outward appearance of a personal and visible coming and presence. And this fact will abundantly account for the use of language (expressive of potential and spiritual comings) like that in Psalm 102:13-16; Isaiah 19:1; Isaiah 19:16; Isaiah 19:19-21; Isaiah 40:10; Isaiah 59:20; Zechariah 2:10-12 : (expressive of potential and spiritual presence) like that in Psalm 135:21; Isaiah 12:6; Isaiah 24:23; Isaiah 60:13 : Ezekiel 34:23-24; Ezekiel 41:22; Ezekiel 43:1-9; Ezekiel 44:1-2; Joel 2:27; Joel 3:17; Joel 3:20-21; Micah 4:7; Zephaniah 3:14-15 : Zechariah 6:12-13; Zechariah 8:3, without expecting a personal reign of Christ upon earth as its only adequate counterpart.”
IV. General Scope of this Book.
(1) Its Aim.—What is the aim of this book? The answers given, though various, have much in common. Some see in it a prediction of the overthrow of Paganism; others carry it further, and see the destruction of Papal Rome; others read in it the rise and fall of some future Antichrist. Thus far the opinions vary; but in one respect there is agreement: the Revelation aims at assuring the Church of the advent of her Lord: it is the book of the Coming One. Every school of interpretation will admit this. Some indeed will say that the expectation raised was never fulfilled, but all appear to unite in regarding the Apocalypse as the book of the advent. We may take this as a key to its meaning: it proclaims Christ’s coming and victory. But is it the victory of Christ over Paganism, or over degenerate forms of Christianity, or over some final and future antichristian power or person? The true answer appears to be, It is the victory of Christ over all wrong-thoughtedness, wrong-heartedness, and wrong-spiritedness; the pictures given in the visions find their counterpart not in one age only, but gather their fullfilment as the ages advance: the fall of Paganism is included in the visions, as the downfall of the world power of Imperial Rome is included; but the picture-prophecy is not exhausted, and will not be till every form of evil of which Pagan and Imperial Rome, of which the wild beast and Babylon are types, has been overthrown. The ages are seen in perspective; the incidents separated from one another in historical sequence are gathered into one prophetical scene, and the Apocalypse presents us with a variety of these prophetical scenes, which depict the salient features of the conquest of evil, the triumph and advent of Christ—“He comes” is the key. He comes when Paganism falls; He comes when brute world force is cast down; He comes when worldliness falls—He comes, and His coming is spreading ever over the world, shining more and more unto the perfect day. Clouds may gather, and make the epochs which are nearest the full day darker than those which preceded them, but still in every epoch leading up to the golden day; the line of conflict may advance and recede from time to time, but it is a triumphant battle-field which is pictured. It is thus the book of the advent and victory of Christ.
But is it a book affording false hopes? Is it an echo of the wish of the early Christian Church, or is it a revelation from Christ to the waiting and perhaps impatient Church? I believe it is the latter. So far from the book giving colour to the expectation of an immediate personal coming of Jesus Christ, it seems distinctly to caution the early Christians against cherishing mistaken notions: “that day shall not come except there come a falling away first,” was the caution of St. Paul; the caution of St. John, though expressed in pictorial form, is none the less emphatic. Let any one bear in mind the eager impatience of suffering Christians in early days, and let them then read the Apocalypse, and they will learn that its undertone is “Not yet, not yet,” but still surely is He coming—not as you think, but as He thinks well, so is He coming. Let the seals furnish an illustration: the first shows an ideal conqueror; Christ, or the gospel of Christ goes forth to conquer—it is the picture of the Church’s hope; the vision tells her that her hope is right, Christ will conquer; but it is the prelude of visions which tell her that her expectation is wrong if she expects that the kingdom of Christ will be established without conflict, pain, suffering and revolution. The succeeding seals are the pictures of the things which must needs be: the wars, the persecutions, the sorrows which will afflict the world because she will not accept her King: the parable of Luke 19:11-27, and the emphatic warning language of Christ Jesus in Matthew 24:4-14, are not forgotten in the Apocalypse. In it we are bidden to remember that though the victory is sure, the victory is through suffering; we are shown scenes which betoken the prolonged sorrows of the faithful, the obstinate tenacity of evil, its subtle transformations. and the concealed powers by which it is sustained: we are thus, as it were, shown the world’s drama from a heavenly view-point, not in continuous historical succession, but in its various essential features, it is in this dramatic—that it does not tell its story right on, but groups its episodes round convenient centres, bringing into special prominence successively the principles of God’s world-government. It is thus an apocalypse unfolding in symbolical forms the characteristic features of the struggle between good and evil, when the power of the gospel enters the field; it is the revelation of the coming (parousia) of Christ, because it shows not only that He will come, but that He does come; that He who has been revealed, is being revealed, and will yet be revealed.
(2) The Form.—It is the symbolical form which hinders many in the right understanding of the book, “I am a man of the earth,” wrote Goëthe; “I am a man of the earth, earthy; to me the parables of the unjust steward, the prodigal son, the sower, the pearl, the lost piece of money, &c., are more divine (if aught divine there be about the matter), than the seven messengers, candlesticks, seals, stars, and woes.” This is only saying that symbolism employed in the one case was simpler than that employed in the latter—simpler, that is to say, to Western minds; for it may perhaps be doubted whether the symbolism which to the Teutonic mind seemed so strange, may not have been simple enough to those who were accustomed to Hebrew symbolism. But however this may be, the general symbols of the book are not so difficult as might appear. There is not space at our disposal to enter upon a discussion of this in detail. Certain features, however, are worthy of notice. The geographical imagery needs attention: Jerusalem stands as the type of the good cause, Babylon as the type of the metropolis of the world-power: Jerusalem is thus the Church of Christ (this symbolism is in complete harmony with St. Paul and other apostolic writers (comp. Galatians 4:24-31; Hebrews 12:22-23. Babylon is the emblem of Pagan Rome, but not only of Pagan Rome, for the Babylon type remains to this day: there are inspiring powers on the side of the heavenly Jerusalem—God is with her; she shall not be moved; the metropolis of evil has the assistance of evil powers: the dragon, the wild beast, and the false prophet are for a time with her. The family of evil bears a marked parallel to the family of good throughout the book: there is a trinity of evil powers on the side of Babylon the harlot, as the blessed Trinity are, with the bride, the heavenly Jerusalem. (See Excursus B: The Wild Beast.) The scenes in the great conflict range themselves round the members of these families of good and evil. The general features and elements of this struggle are depicted. There are numerical symbols: seven is the number of perfection, six of man’s worldly perfection without God, four of the universe, three and a half of a limited period. There are seals, trumpets, and vials; the seals of the book which could only be opened by Christ betoken that the direction of earth’s history and its explanation can be found only in Christ; the trumpets are the symbols of God’s war against all forms of evil; the vials are the tokens of the retribution which falls upon those who turn not at the divine summons to righteousness. The strong symbolism of the book has a two-fold advantage: when the application of the visions are not to be exhausted in one age, the pictorial form is the most convenient to embrace the manifold fulfilments. Again, the author has clothed his thoughts in the “variously limiting, but reverential and only suitable drapery of ancient sacred language and symbolism, in the conviction that the reader would penetrate the veil and reach the sense” (Gebhardt).
(3) The General Structure.—The majority of critics see a seven-fold structure in the book. The commentators differ, as might be expected, as to the way in which this seven-foldedness of structure shows itself; but most of them arrange the different parts of the book in a seven-fold fashion. This is worthy of note, as the Fourth Gospel (see Introduction to St. John’s Gospel) has been shown to have a similar seven-fold arrangement. When we notice the fondness of the seer for such an arrangement in the subordinate visions, it is not to be wondered at that the whole book should fall into seven groups; but we must be careful not to be carried away by our love of symmetry. The charts and maps of Apocalyptic interpretation are often very Procrustean. The general structure of the book, however, may be noted.
1.The Preliminary Chapters.—Christ and His Church.
(1)THE VISION OF THE CHRIST (Revelation 1).
(2)THE MESSAGES TO THE CHURCHES (Revelation 2, 3.).
(1)THE VISION OF THE THRONED ONE (Revelation 4.).
(2)THE VISIONS OF THE CONFLICT, in two main sections.
(a)The conflict seen from the world side (Revelation 6-11.):
(α)The seven seals (Rev 6:1 to Rev 8:1).
(β)The seven trumpets (Revelation 8:2-11.).
(b)The conflict seen from the heavenly side (Revelation 12-20):
(α)The spiritual foes (Revelation 12-14.).
(β)The seven vials of retribution (Revelation 15, 16).
(γ)The fall of foes (Revelation 17-20).
(3)THE VISIONS OF PEACE (Revelation 21, Revelation 22:1-6).
3.The Epilogue (Revelation 22:6-21).
It will be seen that there is a moving onward from the more external to the deeper and more spiritual aspects of earth’s story. The earlier visions (the seals, for example) show the ordinary phenomena of the world’s story—war, famine, death, revolution. The next series (the trumpets) show us that there is another, even a spiritual war, going forward in the world, and that changes and revolutions are often tokens of the inner spiritual battle in life. These visions, however, are, so to speak, all in the sphere of earth: in the next series we are shown that the war carried on here is one which has its heavenly counterpart. The conflict is not simply between good men and bad, but between principalities and powers. (See an interesting article on “The Ideal Incarnation,” by Dr. S. Cox, in the Expositor, Vol. II., p. 405.) There is a heavenly view-point of all things on earth: there are spiritual forces, the ideal Church, the unseen strength of God, and the hidden inspirations of evil. In this struggle all evil will be vanquished. The earthly manifestations of evil, as well as the unearthly inspirations of it, will fall; the great and arch-enemy will be overthrown; the true spiritual, eternal rest be reached, and the golden age be realised. We are thus taught, in this ever-deepening spirituality of the book, to look beneath the phenomena, to trace the subtle and unmasked principles which are at work, to separate between the false and the true, to believe in ideals which are not mere ideas, but the true thoughts of God, which will one day be made real in the eyes of men, and which are even now real to the eye of faith Thus does the Book of Revelation become the unfolding of a dream which is from God. In it are painted the scenes of earth’s history: the thirst of a nation’s life and its passing groan; the tears and prayers of the unreckoned holy ones of earth; the agony of half-despair which even the best have felt in the night of conflict, that has so often been the eve of triumph; the sustaining faith which has transfigured the weakling into a hero, and nerved the heart of solitary saint-ship to do battle alone against a degenerate Church or a persecuting world; the silent victory of truth, or the unperceived growth of worldliness and falsehood. The book is thus a help and stay—not as yielding fruit to curiosity. It is not a manual of tiresome details: it is not meant to be a treasure-house of marvels for the prophetical archæologist: it is a book of living principles. It exhibits the force and fortune of truth as it acts upon the great mass of human society: it shows the revolutions which are the result. It shows the decay of the outward form, the release of the true germ, which will spring up in better harvests. It shows us how the corn of wheat may fall and die, and so bring forth much fruit. It shows us how evermore, from first to last, Christ is with us—encouraging, consoling, warning, helping, and leading us onward through conflict to rest.
V. Literature of the Apocalypse.—It is perfectly hopeless to touch so vast a subject as this. The mere list of works on the Apocalypse given in Darling’s Cyclopædia Bibliographica, published in 1859, occupies fifty-two columns. A history of various interpretations is given in Lücke, Einleitung in die Offenbarung Johannis; a similar sketch is given by Bleek, Lectures on the Apocalypse; and Elliott (Horce Apocalypticæ,” vol. iv.) has presented us with an exhaustive and impartial account, History of Apocalyptic Interpretations, followed by A Critical Examination and Refutation of the Three Chief Counter-schemes of Apocalyptic Interpretation; and also of Dr. Arnold’s General Prophetic Counter-theory. Dean Alford’s article (Greek Test.) on “Systems of Interpretation,” is lucid and compact.
Of Commentaries, leaving unnoticed earlier expositions, those of Vitringa, De Wette, Ewald, Bleek, Hengstenberg, Meyer, Ebrard, Auberlen, and Düsterdieck; of Hammond, Bishop Newton, Elliott, Alford, Bishop Wordsworth, Cunningham, Woodhouse, Moses Stuart, De Burgh, I. Williams, besides the works of Faber, Maitland. and Prof. Birks, are well known; and Dr. Currey’s Notes on Revelation, in the Christian Knowledge Society’s Commentary add much to the value of a really useful work.
Of lectures, the late Professor Maurice’s Lectures are full of thought and interest; and many are indebted to Dr. Vaughan for his Lectures on the Revelation of St. John, which are models of what expository lectures ought to be. Gebhardt’s Lehrbegriff der Apokalypse, now accessible to English readers in Clarke’s Foreign Translation Library—(Gebhardt’s Doctrine of the Apocalypse) is a valuable addition to the literature of the subject; it contains a close and careful comparison between the doctrine of the Apocalypse and that of the Gospel and Epistles of St. John. Of other books may be mentioned—Rev. S. Garratt’s Commentary on the Revelation of St. John, considered as the Divine Book of History; Prophetical Landmarks, by Rev. H. Bonar; Dr. J. H. Todd’s Donnellan Lectures; and Bishop Wordsworth’s Hulsean Lectures. The Apocalypse, by Rev. Charles B. Waller; The Parousia, a Critical Inquiry into the New Testament Doctrine of our Lord’s Second Coming; The Life and Writings of St. John, by Dr. J. M. Macdonald, of Princetown. On special points the following works may be noted:—On the Epistles to the Seven Churches, in addition to Archbishop Trench’s indispensable work, and to Stier’s well-known one, a valuable contribution has been given by Prof. Plumptre. On the Millennium: Bishop Waldegrave’s “New Testament Millennarianism” (Bampton Lectures), and the Rev. Dr. Brown’s work entitled Christ’s Second Coming: will it be pre-Millennial? On the Babylon of the Apocalypse: Bishop Wordsworth’s Rome, the Babylon of the Apocalypse. On the types and symbols: Fairbairn’s Typology of Scripture; Rev. Malcolm White’s Symbolical Numbers of Scripture; and the essay on “The Formal Elements of Apocalyptics” prefixed to Lange’s Commentary on Revelation. Of this last book, which has not been mentioned above, it is to be regretted that, with much that is most valuable, it should be disfigured by pedantry of style.
EXCURSUS ON NOTES TO REVELATION. EXCUESUS A: THE ANGELS OF THE CHURCHES.
EXCUESUS A: THE ANGELS OF THE CHURCHES.
THE most usual interpretation regards the angels of the churches as the chief ministers or presiding elders of the congregations. This interpretation is so very widely adopted that it has been mentioned in the Notes; but the reader will have perceived that it is not a view which can be considered altogether satisfactory. In the first place, whatever date we accept for the Apocalypse, it is at least strange to find the titles, “elders” or “bishops,” which were in common use exchanged for the doubtful one of “angel.” A common explanation is that the term is derived from the synagogue staff, where the messenger or “angel of the synagogue” was a recognised office; but the transference of such a title to any office in the Christian Church is at least doubtful, and as the officer so styled was only a subordinate in the synagogue, a “clerk” or “precentor” to conduct the devotions of the worshippers, it becomes very improbable that such a term or title would have been employed to describe the presiding elder of a Christian Church. Turning to the Old Testament, it is true that the word “angel” is used in a higher sense (Haggai 1:13; Malachi 2:7), being employed to describe the messengers of God; but the usage here is different. “It is conceivable, indeed, that a bishop or chief pastor should be called an angel, or messenger of God, or of Christ, but he would hardly be styled an angel of the church over which he presides.” (Lightfoot, Epistle to the Philippians, p. 197, note.) Thus the interpretation under consideration appears scarcely satisfactory.
Others have thought the word “angel” is not to be applied to the individual presiding elder, but to the whole ministry of the Church, treated as one. This view, though in some senses approaching nearer to the truth, can hardly be sustained without considerable modification. Others, again, fall back upon Jewish authorities, and see in the angels the guardian angels of the churches. “In Daniel every nation has its ruling angel; and, according to the Rabbins, an angel is placed over every people.” The angel, then, would be a literal, real angel who has the guardianship of the church in question. In popular thought, then, the angel would be one of the good angelic beings whose special duty it was to bear up the church during its trials, by such providential ministries as were needed and ordered. There are some difficulties in accepting this interpretation. In particular the language of rebuke which is addressed directly to the angel himself—the threatening to remove his candlestick, for example—sounds meaningless.
But here it is that we may inquire whether the angel of a particular community, nation, or people is to be understood always of a good and powerful being sent forth by the Almighty to love and watch over it. It is believed that this view does not satisfy the case. It is certain that Daniel represents the guardian angels of nations as opposed to each other, and not co-operating always for the same great and good end. “The prince (guardian angel) of the kingdom of Persia withstood me,” is the language addressed to Daniel by him whose face was like lightning (Daniel 10:13). (Compare also Jude 1:20-21, and Dr. Currey’s Notes in the Speaker’s Commentary on these passages.) Such passages seem to suggest that the “angels” are the powers in the spiritual sphere corresponding to the peoples or communities in the earthly; and these may be on the side of evil or of good. Next, it may be noticed that the action of these angels in the spiritual sphere seems to be the reflection of the action of the community or people in the earthly. If the church at Ephesus has left its first love, the angel is spoken of as sharing the same fault. The influences seen on the spiritual side correspond with those at work in the actual earthly community. The angel of the church or of the individual thus becomes their manifestation in the heavenly sphere. For all our life is thus double; our actions have an earthly meaning, and also a heavenly; what they touch of worldly interests gives them their earthly meaning, what they touch of spiritual welfare is their heavenly meaning. Like the planets, we lie half in shadow and half in light: from the earthly side the world-meaning of our actions lies in the light, and their spiritual value or force is only dimly seen, as it lies in at least partial shadow; but seen from the heavenly side the position is reversed, the worldly significance of human actions is cast into comparative shade, the actual spiritual influences of them are brought into clear light; and it is the spiritual significance of our actions which reveals what we are; in this is concentrated the true force which we are exerting. Seen from the heavenly side, the angel of our life mingles in the great spiritual war, and takes its part as a combatant there; while, on the earthly side, we are seen carrying on our daily occupations. Measured on the earthly side the balance is not struck; there is inconsistency in us; we are partly good and partly bad, sometimes helping, sometimes hindering the work of God on earth, as we judge; but the actual resultant of these inconsistent powers is seen in the heavenly sphere, either helping or thwarting the cause of good. Thus are we double combatants—in the world, for our livelihood, for our ease, for our advancement; in the heavenly, for good or for evil. And it is on the spiritual side that we lie open to spiritual influences; here, where our true self is seen more clearly than anywhere else, are the appeals to our better nature, as we say, most powerful; here, He who holds the stars in His right hand, makes His voice to be heard when He addresses, not merely the church or the individual, but the angel of the church; here, He calls them to see that there is a war in heaven, in which all are combatants, but in which He is the Captain of our salvation. Here too, on the heavenly side, are the wounds of the spiritual and better nature more plainly seen; the offence or blow given to the little one of Christ is not noticed on the earthly side, but the inner nature is wounded, and the wound is seen in its real dimensions in the presence of God, for the angel nature beholds God’s face. It is this thought which gives force and solemnity to our Lord’s warning (Matthew 18:10).
The angel of the church, then, would be the spiritual personification of the church; but it must not be concluded from this, as Züllig does, that these angels are in “the mind of the poet himself nothing more than imaginary existences,” or reduce the angel to be “just the community or church itself.” It is no more the church itself than the “star” is the same as the candlestick. “The star is the supra-sensual counterpart, the heavenly representative; the lamp, the earthly realisation, the outward embodiment” (Lightfoot, Epistle to the Philippians, p. 198). The angel is the church seen in its heavenly representative, and seen, therefore, in the light of those splendid possibilities which are hers if she holds fast by Him who holds fast the seven stars.
Space forbids any treatment of the wider questions on the ministry of angels, or the nature of angelic beings. That such are recognised in Scripture there can be no doubt, and nothing written above is designed to militate against such a belief; but it seems well to remember that where we are dealing with a symbolical book, it is more in harmony with its character to treat symbols as symbols. The forces of nature are God’s messengers, and we may regard them as truly such, and feel that the expressions “the angel of the waters,” “the angel of fire,” “the angel of the abyss,” and so forth, are designed to remind us that all things serve Him, and are the ministers of Him, to do his pleasure; we may even believe that the various forces of nature, so little really understood by us, are under the guardianship of special personal messengers of God; but there is nothing in the imagery of the book which necessarily demands such a belief. It is, moreover, surely not inappropriate in our own day to reassert with some pertinacity the lofty thoughts of ancient belief that winds and storms, ocean and fire, do in truth belong to Him round whom are the clouds and darkness, whose is the sea, and whose hands prepared the dry land.
On the literature of this subject see Godet’s Studies on the New Testament; Schaff, History of the Apostolic Church; Lightfoot’s article on “The Christian Ministry” in the Epistle to the Philippians, pp. 193-199; Hengstenberg’s lengthy note on Revelation 1:20; Professor Milligan’s article, “The Candlestick and the Star,” in the Expositor of September, 1878; Gebhardt, Der Lehrbegriff der Apokalypse, article “Die Engel,” p. 37, or p. 36 in the English translation (The Doctrine of the Apocalypse) published by Messrs. Clark in the Foreign Theological Library. Also “Excursus on Angelology” in the speaker’s Commentary on Daniel, p. 348; article “Angels” in Smith’s Dictionary.
EXCURSUS B: THE WILD BEAST.
IT is to be noticed that the interpretation of the I whole Apocalypse is coloured by the interpretation given to the wild beast. The book, as we have seen (see Introduction), is one of hope, but it is also one of warning; not without a struggle would the foe be driven from the earth where he had usurped power for so long. The devil is cast down—in the higher, heavenly sphere he is regarded as a fallen and defeated enemy; but this conflict has its counterpart on the arena of the world. The Apocalypse gives us in symbol some features of this conflict. It shows four powers of evil: the dragon, the first and second wild beasts, and Babylon the harlot. It is with the beast that we are now concerned, but one or two remarks on this family of evil will not be out of place.
I. The Family of Evil.
(1) The four antagonists of good are related to one another. The resemblance between the dragon and the wild beast (comp. Revelation 12:3; Revelation 13:1; Revelation 17:3; Revelation 17:7; Revelation 17:10) is too obvious to be passed over; it seems designed to show us that the same principle and spirit of evil is at work in both. Again, the way in which the first wild beast gives place to the second wild beast, or false prophet (comp. Revelation 13:11-12; Revelation 16:13; Revelation 19:20; Revelation 20:10), and yet retains its ascendency (comp. Revelation 13:14-17) makes plain the close connection between them; and, lastly, the appearance of the harlot, riding on the scarlet-coloured beast (Revelation 17:3), completes the chain of association between them. The same principles and spirit of evil make themselves manifest in different spheres.
(2) The four antagonists of good are arranged to meet the four corresponding manifestations of good. For every power of good there is an analogous power of evil. If on the side of good we have the three Persons of the blessed Trinity—the Throned One, the Lamb, and the Holy Spirit—besides the Church, the bride, the Lamb’s wife, the heavenly Jerusalem; we have on the side of evil—the dragon, the beast, the false prophet, as a sort of trinity of evil—besides the harlot, Babylon. The dragon being a kind of anti-God; the wild beast, an anti-Christ; the false prophet, an anti-Spirit; the Babylon, an anti-Church. The minor features in the same way correspond: the true Christ died and rose again; the anti-Christ, the wild beast, was wounded unto death, but his deadly wound was healed. The crucified Christ was exalted to be Prince and Saviour, and the outpoured Spirit upon the Church glorified Him by taking of the things of Christ and showing them to the disciples, and by convincing the world of sin because Christ went to the Father; the second beast, or false prophet, works wonders, causes an image of the first wild beast to be made and worshipped. The followers of the Lamb are sealed with the Holy Spirit of Promise; the worshippers of the wild beast receive from the false prophet the mark of the beast. (See Revelation 13 throughout.) It is desirable to keep these lines of parody and correspondent antagonism in mind.
II. The Wild Beast—or Antichrist.—It is with the beast that we are concerned in this Excursus; but we cannot altogether dissociate the first beast from the second, though their work is diverse.
(1) The first wild beast is clearly to be connected with the vision of Daniel 7:2-7; the identification of the beast described by Daniel with four great empires is’ unquestionable: it is hardly our purpose to inquire whether the four empires are Babylonia, Medo-Persia, Macedonia, and Rome; or Babylonia, Media, Persia, and Greece: the former, which is the more ancient opinion, appears the more probable; but it is enough to remember that these four beasts represent four great world-powers. St. John saw rising out of the sea (comp. Daniel 7:2), not seven diverse beasts, but one seven-headed beast. Now it is perfectly true that to the early Christians Pagan and Imperial Rome was the one great world-power whose shadow darkened the earth, and that a seven-headed monster might well depict this Pagan Rome, as a four-headed beast had represented to Daniel an earlier empire (Greece or Persia); and the wild beast of Revelation 13 from one aspect undoubtedly represents this great tyrant power; but it seems to the present writer that the genius of the Apocalypse is concentration; that which to earlier prophets was seen in detail is to the Christian seer grouped. Daniel saw four beasts rising one after another; St. John saw one wild beast, uniting in himself all the early, present, and future manifestations of that world-empire which has ever been hostile to the spiritual kingdom. Two reasons may be noticed; one from the Book of Daniel, the other from Revelation. This concentration of different world-powers into one representative body was not foreign to the thought of the earlier prophet. Daniel relates the vision in which the’ diverse monarchies of the world were represented as one huge human figure cast out of gold, silver, brass, and iron (Daniel 2:31-49); the diverse powers were thus seen as one, and the little stone, which represented the true spiritual kingdom, in smiting upon one, caused the whole image to fall. The world-kingdoms were thus seen in prophetic vision as one great age-long world-power, which must be smitten by Christ’s kingdom. The Book of Revelation also gives us a hint that the seven-fold aspect of the wild beast must not be given too limited or too local an interpretation. The wild beast, with seven heads and ten crowns, is in these features reproducing the appearance of the red dragon, who is also represented as having seven heads and ten horns. (Comp. Revelation 12:3; Revelation 13:1.) Now the dragon is surely the type of the great arch-enemy the Devil—the Anti-God; the seven heads and ten horns denote that he is the prince of this world, who has more or less animated the successive great world-powers by hostility to righteousness; the empires of the world have been his in so far as they have been founded on force, or fraud, oppression, or unholiness. When, then, the seven-headed wild beast rises from the sea, must we not see in the seven heads the counterpart of those which the dragon bore? The dragon carries those seven heads as he is the great spiritual prince of this world, the one who is practically worshipped in all mere world-made empires. The wild beast carries these seven heads because he is the great representative of all these world-powers themselves, and what may give almost certainty to this interpretation is the fact that the wild beast unites in himself the appearances of leopard, bear, and lion, which were the emblems employed by Daniel to represent earlier monarchies. Actually at the moment St. John saw the vision the wild beast was to him Rome, because through Rome the great world-empire was then working. The seven heads might also look like types of successive emperors; but the more important, because age-long reading of the vision sets before us the concentration in one great monstrous wild beast of all those powers. Powers which were diverse and even politically hostile were yet ethically one power opposed to the fundamental principles of righteousness and peace, of purity and true godliness. The first wild beast, then, becomes the symbol of confederated and age-long world-powers.
(2) The second wild beast is allied with the first. His origin is not of God, he is of the earth: he is more peaceable in his appearance than the first beast, but his speech betrays him; the dragon-voice is his, and he revives the worship of the first wild beast. In him, therefore, are combined the powers of the dragon and the first wild beast. Yet he yields homage to existing order: unlike the first wild beast, which rises out of an ocean of disorder and tumult, he springs out of the earth. He assumes, in part, also, a Christian appearance: he is as a lamb. These features would lead us to expect a power not wholly irreligious—indeed, in some features Christian, yet practically Pagan: observing order, yet arrogant; a second power resembling the first, yet possessing a more specious appearance to mankind. It is on this second wild beast that the seer bids us fasten our more marked attention. It is this second wild beast who deceives by false wonders and false worship, and introduces a great and grinding tyranny. It is this second wild beast to whom is attributed the mysterious number 666. It is well now to turn back to earlier writings. In Daniel 7 we read of a “little horn,” and in the description there we find much that is parallel with the description here. (Comp. Daniel 7:8 with Revelation 13:5; Daniel 7:21 with Revelation 13:7.) This “little horn” of Daniel has been identified (comp. Excursus on Interpretation of 2Thessalonians 2:3-12) with the “Man of Sin” spoken of by St. Paul (2Thessalonians 2:3). Some think that the little horn of Daniel 7 is identical with the horn of Revelation 8. Into this question we have not space to enter: it will be enough here to keep in mind that St. Paul looked for the manifestation of an Antichrist, a Man of Sin, whose type in all likelihood he found in the little horn of Daniel 7; and that the picture of the Antichrist painted by St. Paul is that of a power not professedly irreligious, but yet claiming from mankind the homage due to God (2Thessalonians 2:4). This seems quite in harmony with the characteristics of the second wild beast, who, it is to be remembered, is described (Revelation 16:13; Revelation 19:20; Revelation 20:10) as the “false prophet.” We may, then, take the second wild beast as the picture of a power, cultured, quasi-religious, borrowing much from Christianity, yet built upon anti-Christian principles, and animated by an anti-Christian spirit.
(3) The identification of the Wild Beast, False Prophet, or Antichrist.—“Ye have heard that Antichrist shall come” (1John 2:18). This is St. John’s acknowledgment of the wide-spread belief that a great falling away should precede the coming of Christ. Here he is at one with St. Paul, but it is consistent with the spirit of St. John’s thought that he should remind his hearers that the spirit of Antichrist was abroad already, and that in a present antagonism to this spirit lay true Christian duty: accordingly, he indicates in more than one place what were some features of the anti-Christian spirit (1John 2:22; 1John 4:1-3). It is also significant that he uses the phrase “false prophet,” reminding us of the Apocalypse, which identifies, as we have seen, the wild beast, or Antichrist, with the false prophet St. John thus appears to regard the spirits and false prophets abroad in his day as at least anticipations of the great future Antichrist and false prophet. Actually there were Antichrists then in the world; but in the prophetic ideal all these were as one great Antichrist. In the Apocalyptic vision the scattered spirits grew into one great representative opponent-the wild beast, the false prophet. Is there, then, no personal Antichrist? It has been ably argued (see Excursus on Prophecy of 2 Thessalonians 2) that the Man of Sin must be an individual. There are certain expressions which seem to point to a single person—notably the remarkable use of the masculine gender when the wild beast is referred to (see Revelation 13:5): but it seems more consonant with the symbolism of the Apocalypse to regard the wild beast as the figurative embodiment of the false, seductive, anti-Christian principle and spirit, which belongs to more ages than one, which reveals itself in diverse aspects, and yet always manifests the same hostility to the Divine Spirit. It must not, however, be supposed that this view denies a personal Antichrist. On the contrary, it is perfectly in harmony with this view to note that the wild-beast spirit has often culminated in an individual: the typical forecasts of Antichrist have often been individuals. Antiochus Epiphanes, Herod, Nero, might fairly be regarded as the incarnation of the ungodly spirit. Similarly, in later ages, it is not to be wondered at that holy, Christ-taught men, groaning for the sorrows of the world and the corruptions of Christianity, saw in many who occupied the Papal chair the very representatives of the false prophet, the Antichrist. Not more need it surprise us to find the same thought passing through men’s minds when pretensions, which would be ridiculous if they were not blasphemous, have been advanced on behalf of the Roman pontiff, till the Church becomes a parody rather than a witness of divine truths. It follows that the view here maintained does not exclude the possibility of a future personal Antichrist, in whom the typical features shall yet find clearer and fuller manifestation than in any previous age. But though all this may be, and though godly men tell us that all these things must be, it appears to the writer infinitely more important to notice the principles which may constitute the Antichrist in every age: the denial of the Father and the Son (1John 2:22), the denial of the Mediator and Incarnate God (1John 4:2-3), the arrogant claim of divine honours, the specious resemblance to Him who is the Lamb of God, the disregard of sacred ties (2Thessalonians 2:10; 1Timothy 4:3), the possession of wonderful power and culture (Revelation 13:11-14). The spirit which is depicted is one which might well develop out of the elements around us. It would not be impossible to imagine the rankest materialism allying itself with a gorgeous ritual—to see the high priests of science acquiescing in the most elaborate of ecclesiasticisms, and the agnostic in creed becoming a ceremonialist in worship, till the satire should be only too sadly true, “I found plenty of worshippers, but no God.” We should then have every element in human nature allowed its nutriment—for the mind, science; for the emotions, worship; for the conduct, direction. The tripartite nature of man would be thus provided for, but the unity of his manhood would be at an end—for the worship would be unintelligent, the moral tone lifeless, because deprived of the vital sense of personal responsibility, and the intellect uninspired, because godless. Such an ago would be the reign of that climax of anti-Christian spirit which is the perfection of man’s powers without God, foreshadowed by the mysterious number 666, which is seeming exaltation of all human powers, but which is in truth their degradation and their discord.
III. The Number of the Beast.—It would serve but little purpose to recapitulate the various solutions of the number of the Beast. An account of them will be found in Elliott (vol. 3). The chief solutions are those mentioned in the Notes. The most ancient, and perhaps most general, solution sees in the number the equivalent of Lateinos. Others see in it the numerical equivalent of one of the Roman emperors; Nero, advocated by Renan; Otho, advocated by an Italian writer, who accounts for the reading, “616” instead of “666,” by the alteration made by a copyist to suit the name of another emperor, Caligula: Γαιος καισαρ = 616, None of these numerical solutions appears to the writer adequate to the whole depth of the seer’s meaning, though they may be included in the significance of the symbol.
The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John:(1) The Revelation of Jesus Christ.—The book is a revelation of the things which are and the things which shall be. “John is the writer, but Jesus Christ is the author,” says Grotius; and consistently with this the action of Christ is seen throughout. It is Christ who bids John write to the seven churches; it is Christ who opens the seven seals (Revelation 6:1), who reveals the sufferings of the Church (Revelation 6:9), who offers the prayers of the saints (Revelation 8:3), and delivers the little book to John (Revelation 10:1-11). Thus it is seen that though the rise and fall of earth’s history is included in the revelation, it is a revelation also of a living person; it is not the dull, dead onward flow of circumstances, but the lives of men and nations seen in the light of Him who is the light of every man and the life of all history; and thus we learn that “only a living person can be the Alpha and Omega, the starting-point of creation and its final rest.” The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of this prophecy, as of all others. The Father gives this to the Son whom He loves, and shows Him all things that Himself doeth.
Shortly.—On this word much controversy has turned. Its force, “speedily,” affords a groundwork, and, it must be admitted, a plausible one, to the præterist school of interpreters, who hold that the whole range of Apocalyptic predictions was fulfilled within a comparatively short time after the Apostle wrote. The truth, however, seems to be that the words of God are of perpetual fulfilment: they are not only to be fulfilled; they have not only been fulfilled; but they have been and they are being fulfilled; and they yet will be fulfilled; and the principles which are enunciated by the Prophet, though “shortly” fulfilled, are not exhausted in the immediate fulfilment, but carry still lessons for the succeeding generations of mankind.
John—i.e., the Apostle and Evangelist. The arguments in support of this identification are admitted even by the most captious critics to be conclusive. “The Apocalypse, if any book can be traced to him, must be ascribed to the Apostle John” (Supernatural Religion). (See Excursus A.) To many it will seem natural that John, the beloved disciple, should be the recipient of this revelation. Those who have been nearest to God learn most of His will. Such are friends, not servants, for the servant knoweth not what his Lord doeth; and thus, as in the Old Testament to Abraham, the friend of God, and to Daniel, a man greatly beloved, so in the New Testament to the disciple who leaned on Jesus’ bosom, are shown the things which God was about to do. “Mysteries are revealed unto the meek. The pure in heart shall see God. A pure heart penetrateth heaven and hell” (Thomas à-Kempis).
“More bounteous aspects on me beam,
Me mightier transports move and thrill;
So keep I fair through faith and prayer,
A virgin heart in work and will.”—Sir Galahad.
Who bare record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw.(2) Who bare record.—Elsewhere as well as here. And he tells us of what he bore record—of the Word of God. The writer declares that the substance of his testimony and witness had been this Word of God. We have here an indication of what the general character of his teaching had been. It evidently had been a teaching laying stress on that aspect of truth which is so forcibly set before us in the Fourth Gospel and the Epistles bearing the name of John. (Comp. Revelation 19:11; John 1:1; John 1:14; 1John 1:1, et al. Note also that the words “record,” “testimony,” “witness,” found in this verse, recur in the Gospel and Epistles. Comp. John 5:31-40; John 19:35; John 21:24.)
Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.(3) Blessed is he that readeth. . . . prophecy.—Any declaration of the principles of the divine government, with indications of their exemplification in coming history, is a prophecy. Sometimes the history which exemplifies these principles is immediate, sometimes more remote; in other cases (as, I venture to believe, is the case with the predictions of this book) the events are both immediate and remote. The prophecy gives us the rule, with some typical application illustrative of its method of working; after-history affords us the working out of various examples. We, then, as living actors in the world, have not only to read and hear, but to keep—keep in mind and action those principles which preside over the development of all human history (James 1:22). The word “keep” is in itself a proof to me that the whole fulfilment of the Apocalypse could not have been exhausted in the earliest times, nor reserved to the latest times of the Church’s history, but that its predictions are applicable in all eras.
The time is at hand.—In the apostolic mind this was always true, though the restless idleness of the Thessalonians was blamed (2Thessalonians 2:2; 2Thessalonians 3:11-12). The spirit of vigilance and of ever readiness for both the providential advents and the final advent of the Christ was enjoined. (Comp. Romans 13:12; James 5:9; 2Peter 3:8-9.)
John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace be unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne;(4) JOHN to the seven churches (or, congregations) which are in Asia.—It is needless to observe that the Asia here is not to be regarded as co-extensive with what we know as Asia Minor. It is the province of Asia (comp. Acts 2:9-10; Acts 16:6-7), which was under a Roman proconsul, and embraced the western portion of Asia Minor. In St. John’s time it consisted of a strip of sea-board, some 100 square miles in extent. Its boundaries varied at different periods; but roughly, and for the present purpose, they may be regarded as the Caycus on the north, the Mæander on the south, the Phrygian Hills on the east, and the Mediterranean on the west.
Seven churches.—It has been maintained by some (notably by Vitringa) that the epistles to the seven churches are prophetic, and set forth the condition of the Church in the successive epochs of its after-history. The growth of error, the development of schisms, the gloom of superstition, the darkness of mediæval times, the dawn of the Reformation, the convulsions of after-revolutions, have been discovered in these brief and forcible epistles. Such a view needs no formal refutation. The anxiety for circumstantial and limited fulfilments of prophecy has been at the root of such attempts. When we read God’s words as wider than our thoughts we stand in no need of such desperate efforts at symmetrical interpretations; for the truth then is seen to be that words addressed to one age have their fitness for all; and that these epistles are the heritage of the Church in every epoch. In this sense the churches are types and representatives of the whole family of God. Every community may find its likeness here. This much is admitted by the best commentators of all schools. “The seven churches,” says St. Chrysostom, “are all churches by reason of the seven Spirits.” “By the seven,” writes St. Augustine, “is signified the perfection of the Church universal, and by writing to the seven he shows the fulness of one.” And the words, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches,” ‘are, as has been well observed, a direct intimation that some universal application of their teaching was intended.
Grace be unto you, and peace.—Three apostles, St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. John, adopt the same salutation. Not only is this a kind of link of Christian fellowship between them, but its adoption by St. John, after St. Paul had first used it, is a slight token that the Apocalypse cannot be regarded (as some recent critics would have it) as an anti-Pauline treatise. As the Christian greeting, it transcends while it embraces the Greek and Hebrew salutations. There is no tinge of the sadness of separation; it is the greeting of hope and repose, grounded on the only true foundation of either, the grace of God, which is the well-spring of life and love.
From him which is, and which was, and which is to come (or, which cometh).—The phrase presents a remarkable violation of grammar; but the violation is clearly intentional. It is not the blunder of an illiterate writer; it is the deliberate putting in emphatic form the “Name of Names.” “Should not,” says Professor Lightfoot, “this remarkable feature be preserved in an English Bible? If in Exodus 3:14 the words run, ‘I AM hath sent me unto you,’ may we not also be allowed to read here, from ‘HE THAT IS, AND THAT WAS, AND THAT IS TO COME?’“ The expression must not be separated from what follows. The greeting is triple: from Him which is, and which was, and which cometh; from the seven Spirits; and from Jesus Christ—i.e., from the Triune God. The first phrase would therefore seem to designate God the Father, the self-existing, eternal One, the fount and origin of all existence. Professor Plumptre suggests that the phrase used here may be used in allusion and contrast to the inscription spoken of by Plutarch, on the Temple of Isis, at Sais: “I am all that has come into being, and that which is, and that which shall be; and no man hath lifted my vail.” The heathen inscription identifies God with the universe, making Him, not an ever-being, but an ever-becoming, from whom personality is excluded: the Christian description is of the personal, everlasting, self-revealing God—who is, who was, and who cometh. We should have expected after “is” and “was” “will be;” but there is no “will be” with an eternal God. With Him all is; so the word “cometh” is used, hinting His constant manifestations in history, and the final coming in judgment. This allusion to the Second Coming is denied by Professor Plumptre, but as he admits that the words, “He that cometh,” used in the Gospels, and applied by the Jews to the Messiah, may be designedly employed here by the Apostle, it is difficult to see how the Advent idea can be excluded. The word appears to imply that we are to be always looking for Him whose “comings” recur in all history as the earnests of the fuller and final Advent.
From the seven Spirits.—The interpretation which would understand these seven Spirits to be the seven chief angels, though supported by names of great weight, is plainly untenable. The context makes it impossible to admit any other meaning than that the greeting which comes from the Father and the Son comes also from the Holy Spirit sevenfold in His operations, whose gifts are diffused among all the churches, and who divides to every man severally as He will. For corresponding thoughts in the Old Testament, compare the seven lamps and seven eyes of Zechariah (Zechariah 3:9; Zechariah 4:2; Zechariah 4:10), “the symbols of eternal light and all embracing knowledge.” It may not be inappropriate to note that Philo speaks of the number seven in its mystical import as identical with unity, as unity developed in diversity, and yet remaining one. This unity in diversity is the thought St. Paul seems anxious to keep before the minds of the Corinthians, lest their gifts should become the source of division. All work that one and self-same spirit (1Corinthians 12:11). The after-recurrence in this book of the number seven is, I think, selected to support this thought of completeness and variety; the dramatic unity is preserved, though the scenes which are unfolded are amply diversified; and the seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven vials, are not three successive periods, but three aspects of one complete period presided over by that one Spirit whose guidance may be seen in all ages, and in diverse ways. The Spirits are before the throne. This reference to the throne gives a touch of authority to the description. The Holy Spirit who pleads with men is the Spirit from God’s Throne.
And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood,(5) From Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten (or, firstborn) of the dead, and the prince (or, ruler) of the kings of the earth.—The triple title applied to Christ corresponds to the three ideas of this book. Christ the Revealing Prophet, the Life-giving High Priest, and the real Ruler of mankind.
The faithful witness.—There may be a reference here, it has been suggested by Prof. Plumptre, to the bow in the cloud, which is described in Psalm 89:37 as the faithful witness. The coincidence of expression is remarkable: “I will make him my firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth; he shall stand fast as the sun before me, and as the faithful witness in heaven.” The idea of testimony and witness is a favourite one with St. John, who records its use by our Lord Himself. (Comp. John 3:32; John 5:36; John 18:37. See also Revelation 19:10; Revelation 22:18. Comp. also the work of the Only Begotten as stated in John 1:18.)
The prince (or ruler) of the kings of the earth.—The message does not come from One who will be, but who is the true ruler of all earthly potentates. The disposition to dwell on the future and more visibly recognised reign of Christ hereafter has tended to obscure the truth of His present reign. It is instructive to notice that this book, which describes so vividly the manifestations of Christ’s kingdom (Revelation 11:15; Revelation 12:10), claims for Him at the outset the place of the real King of kings. Such was the Apostle’s faith. “Above all emperors and kings, above all armies and multitudes, he thought of the Crucified as ruling and directing the course of history, and certain in His own due time to manifest His sovereignty” (Prof. Plumptre). “What are we to see in the simple Anno Domini of our dates and superscriptions, but that for some reason the great world-history has been bending itself to the lowly person of Jesus” (Bushnell). “A handful read the philosophers; myriads would die for Christ; they in their popularity could barely found a school; Christ from His cross rules the world” (Farrar, Witness of History). Such is a real kingship.
Unto him that loved us, and washed us.—Instead of “washed us,” some MSS. read, “loosed us.” There is only one letter’s difference in the two words in Greek. The general tone of thought would lead us to prefer “washed” as the true reading. On a solemn occasion, which St. John remembered clearly, our Lord had said, “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with Me.” The thought of the “cleansing blood,” intensified by the recollection of the water and blood which he had seen flowing from Christ’s pierced side, often recurred to his mind (Revelation 7:13-14; 1John 1:7; 1John 5:6-8).
And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.(6) And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever (or, unto the ages).—The symbol of washing in the last verse naturally leads on to the thought of consecration, accompanied by blood-sprinkling, to the work of the priest (Exodus 19:6; Exodus 19:10; Exodus 24:8; Hebrews 9:21). The book will declare the kingship and priesthood of the children of God—a sovereignty over human fears and sufferings—their priesthood in their lives of consecration, and their offering of themselves even unto death.
“And all thy saints do overcome
By Thy blood and their martyrdom.”
The doxology here is two-fold: glory and dominion. The doxologies in which the Redeemed Church takes part grow in strength in the earlier chapters of this book. It is three-fold in Revelation 4:9-11; four-fold in Revelation 5:13; and it reaches the climax of seven-fold in Revelation 7:12.
Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.(7) Behold, he cometh with clouds.—Better, with the clouds. The reference to Christ’s words (Mark 14:62) is undoubted. In the “clouds” St. Augustine sees the emblem of the saints of the Church, which is His body, who spread as a vast fertilising cloud over the whole world.
Every eye shall see him, and they also which (they were who = “whosoever”) pierced him.—Here again is a reference to the incident of the piercing of Christ’s side (John 19:34), recorded only by St. John.
Shall wail because of him.—Or, shall wail over Him. The prophecy in Zechariah 12:10, is the suggesting one of this. But the passage in Zechariah describes the mourning of grief over the dead; the passage here is the mourning towards one who was dead, and is alive. He towards whom they now direct their sorrow is the One over whom they should have wailed when He was laid in His tomb.
I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.(8) The beginning and the ending.—These words are of doubtful authority; they are in all probability taken from Revelation 22:13, and interpolated here. The description of the verse applies, with little doubt, to our Lord, and the words are a strong declaration of His divinity.
The Almighty.—The word thus rendered is, with one exception (2Corinthians 6:18), peculiar to this book in the New Testament.
I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.(9) I John, who also am your brother . . .—More literally, I, John, your brother and fellow partner in the tribulation and kingdom and patience in Jesus,. . . . because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. He was a fellow-sharer of tribulation with them, and he shares that patience which brings experience, because it is a patience in Jesus. It is not patience for Christ, like 2Thessalonians 3:5, nor patience of Christ, but rather patience which draws its life and energy of endurance from Him.
Patmos.—Professor Plumptre notices how little the scenery of Patmos colours the Apocalypse. “The vision that follows is all but unaffected by the external surroundings of the seer. At the farthest, we can but think of the blue waters of the Mediterranean—now purple as wine, now green as emerald, flushing and flashing in the light as the hues on the plumage of a dove.” The position of the Apostle in Patmos was probably that of an exile, free to roam where he would within the limits of the island. There was at any rate no limit of chains or guard, as in the case of St. Paul (Acts 28:16; Acts 28:20). He tells us what was the cause of his exile. It was his faithfulness in proclaiming, as we know he loved to do, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. “St. John, proclaiming the Word of God, who was before all worlds, who had been made flesh and dwelt among men, who was the King of kings and Lord of lords, struck a blow at the worship as well as the polity of the Roman empire. He opposed the God-man to the man-god” (Maurice on the Revel., p. 20). The contest is incessantly the same. False creeds ever aim to deify man. “Ye shall be as gods” is their motto and their bible. “Emmanuel,” is the motto of the true faith—
“The Lord was God, and came as man; the Pope
Is man, and comes as God.”—Harold.
The crucified, suffering Saviour, God in Christ, very God, and one with man in sorrow, was the stumbling-block in the past, and is the ideal which offends many now. (See Bp. Alexander’s Bampton Lectures, p. 30, et seq.) The terms of the conflict remain unchanged through the ages. (Comp. Revelation 6:9.)
I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet,(10) I was (or, I became) in the Spirit.—The mind, drawn onward by the contemplation of things spiritual, is abstracted from the immediate consciousness of outward earthly forms of life. In great natures this power is usually strong. Socrates is related to have stood rapt in thought for hours, and even days, unconscious of the midday heat, or the mocking wonder of his comrades. To high-souled men, set upon the spiritual welfare of the race, this power of detaching themselves from the influence of the outward is the result of their earnestness; the things spiritual are to them the real; the things seen are temporal. It is the Holy Spirit alone which can give the power of this spiritual abstraction; but it is through the ordinary use of means that this power is bestowed. In St. John’s case it was on the Lord’s Day that this spiritual rapture was vouchsafed.
The Lord’s day.—There is no ground whatever for the futurist interpretation that this expression refers to the “Day of the Lord,” as in 2Thessalonians 2:2. The phrase in this latter passage is totally different. The phrase here is. en te kuriake hemera. The adjective is applied by St. Paul (perhaps coined by him for the purpose) to the Lord’s Supper: from the Supper it came to be applied to the day on which Christians met for the breaking of bread. The day is still called κυριακὴ (kuriake) in the Levant. On the Lord’s Day the vision came to the Apostle. It was the hour of sweetest, closest communion, when the memories of Christ risen, and the fellowship he had enjoyed at Ephesus, would work on his spirit, and aid in raising him in highest adoration, like St. Paul (2Corinthians 12:2-4). When so rapt, he heard a voice, strong, clear, and resonant as a trumpet. The Apostle’s voice could not be heard among his beloved flock at Ephesus; but there was a voice which would reach from the exile at Patmos, not to Ephesus and its sister churches, but to all churches and throughout all time. The mouth which persecution closes God opens, and bids it speak to the world. So St. Paul, through the Epistles of his Captivity, still speaks. Luther, by his translation of the Bible, spoke from his confinement at Wartburg; and Bunyan, by his divine allegory, shows how feeble were the walls of his cell at Bedford to silence the voice of God. If speech be silver and silence golden, it is also true in the history of the Church that from the captivity of her teachers she has received her most abiding treasures.
Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea.(11) I am Alpha and Omega.—In this verse we pass from St. John to Him who was the Word, of whom St. John gave testimony. He who is the faithful witness now speaks. “What thou seest, write,” &c. The previous words, “I am Alpha,” &c., are not found in the best MSS. The words “which are in Asia,” are also omitted.
The seven churches.—There were more than seven churches in Asia Minor; but the number selected indicates completeness. Thus, though having special reference to the conditions of those churches, the epistles may be regarded as epistles conveying ever appropriate lessons to the churches of succeeding ages. The names of the seven churches are enumerated, as they would naturally be by a person writing from Patmos. “First, Ephesus is addressed, as the Asiatic metropolis, and as the nearest church to Patmos; then the other churches on the western coast of Asia; then those in the interior” (Wordsworth).
And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks;(12) Seven golden candlesticks.—Comp. the vision in Zechariah 4:2-11. It has been observed that there is a difference in the two visions. In Zech., as in Exodus 25:31-32, the seven branches are united, so as to form one candlestick; here there are said to be seven candlesticks; and from this supposed difference it is argued that we have a hint of the variety of the Christian churches, as distinguished from the singleness of the Jewish church. But is it not more probable that what St. John saw was the old familiar seven-branched candlestick, identical in form with that which has been rendered familiar to all by the Arch of Titus, but that as the mention of the seven churches was then fresh in his mind, his eye fell rather upon the seven limbs and seven lights than on the whole candlestand, especially if, as Prof. Plumptre suggests, the figure of the Christ concealed part of the main stem? Thus to his view the separate individuality of the churches, and their real union in Him who was the Light, would rather be symbolised. Thus, too, the external teachings of the earlier symbols are not disturbed: the new revelation illumines the types and shadows of the older. “These symbols were intended to raise them out of symbols; the truths were to throw light on the parables, rather than the parables on the truths. Men were to study the visions of an earlier day by the revelations of that day” (Maurice, Apocalypse, p. 22).
And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle.(13) In the midst of the seven candlesticks (the word “seven” is omitted in some of the best MSS.) one like unto the Son of man.—“He who kindled the light to be a witness of Himself and of His own presence with men was indeed present.” He was present the same as He had been known on earth, yet different—the same, for He is seen as Son of Man; the same as He had been seen on the Resurrection evening; the same as He appeared to Stephen; the same Jesus, caring for, helping and counselling His people: yet different, for He is arrayed in the apparel of kingly and priestly dignity. He is robed to the foot with the long garment of the high priest. St. John uses the same word which is used in the LXX. version of Exodus 28:31, to describe the robe of the Ephod. (Comp. Zechariah 3:4.) It has been understood by some, however, to indicate the “ample robe of judicial and kingly power.” There is in the vision a combination of both thoughts. He is the King-Priest who is seen by the Evangelist, the Melchisedec whom the Epistle to the Hebrews had so gloriously set forth (Hebrews 5:9-10; Hebrews 6:20; especially Hebrews 7:1-17). He is girt about the breasts with a golden girdle. The girdle is not around the loins, as though ready for action and toil (Luke 12:35), but it is worn as by one who rests from toil in the “repose of sovereignty.” So, according to Josephus (Ant. iii. 7, § 2), the Levitical priests were girdled. The girdle is of gold; not interwoven with gold, as was the high priest’s girdle (Exodus 28:8), but pure gold, the emblem of a royal presence. (Comp. Isaiah 11:5; Daniel 10:5; Ephesians 6:14.)
His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire;(14) His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow.—The whiteness here is thought by some to be the token of the transfiguration in light of the glorified person of the Redeemer. “It is the glorious white which is the colour and livery of heaven.” This doubtless is true; but it appears to me a mistake to say that there is no hint here of age. It is argued that the white hair of age is a token of decay, and that no such token would have place here; but surely this is straining a point, and making a mere emblem an argument. Age and youth alike have their glories; the glory of young men is their strength; the hoary head, too, the token of experience, dignity, authority, is the glory of age. Physically, white hair may be a sign of decay; typically it never is, else the effort to produce the appearance of it in the persons of monarchs and judges would never have been made. The white head is never in public sentiment other than the venerable sign of ripe knowledge, mature judgment, and solid wisdom; and as such it well betokens that full wisdom and authority which is wielded by the Ancient of Days, who, though always the same in the fresh dew of youth, is yet from everlasting, the captain of salvation, perfect through suffering, radiant in the glorious youthhood of heaven, venerable in that eternal wisdom and glory which He had with the Father before the world. (Comp. Daniel 7:9.) “He was one,” Saadias Gaon beautifully says, “with the appearance of an old man, and like an old man full of mercies. His white hair, His white garments, indicated the pure, kind intentions He had to purify His people from their sins.”
His eyes were as a flame of fire.—Comp. Revelation 19:12; Daniel 10:6. The eyes of the Lord, which are in every place, beholding the evil and the good, are here described as like unto fire, to express not merely indignation (He had looked once on the Jewish rulers in indignation) against evil, but determination to consume it; for our God is a consuming fire, purging away sin from those who forsake sin, and consuming in their sin those who refuse to be separated from it. (See Revelation 20:9; Daniel 7:9-10; Jude 1:7.)
And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.(15) His feet like unto fine brass.—The feet, like the feet of the ministering priests of Israel, were bare, and appeared like chalcolibanus (fine brass). The exact meaning of this word (used only here) is not certain. The most trustworthy authors incline to take it as a hybrid word, half Greek, half Hebrew—chalcos, brass, and labân, white, to whiten—and understand it to signify brass which has attained in the furnace a white heat. “Such technical words were likely enough to be current in a population like that of Ephesus, consisting largely of workers in metal, some of whom—if we may judge from the case of Alexander the coppersmith (Acts 19:34; 2Timothy 4:14)—were, without doubt, Jews. I believe the word in question to have belonged to this technical vocabulary. It is at any rate used by St. John as familiar and intelligible to those for whom he wrote” (Prof. Plumptre in the Epistles to Seven Churches, in loco).
His voice as the sound (better, voice, as the same word—phoné—is used twice, and translated first “voice” and then “sound” in our English version) of many waters.—Daniel described the voice of the Ancient of Days as the voice of a multitude (Daniel 10:6); but the voice of the multitude was in earlier Hebrew writings compared to the sound of the waves of the sea, which the voice of the Lord alone could subdue (Psalm 65:7; Psalm 93:4). This image the Evangelist adopts to describe the voice of Christ—strong and majestic, amid the Babel-sounds of earth. That voice, whose word stilled the sea, sounds as the waves of the sea, which St. John heard Him rebuke.
And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength.(16) And he had (or, having) in his right hand seven stars.—The stars are explained later on (Revelation 1:20) to be the emblems of the angels of the seven churches; they are described as stars in His right hand; they, perhaps, appeared as a wreath, or as a royal and star-adorned diadem in His hand. (See Isaiah 62:3.) It expresses their preciousness in Christ’s sight, and the care He takes of them. A similar emblem is used of Coniah (Jeremiah 22:24), where he is compared to the signet upon God’s right hand.
And out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword.—There need be no doubt about the meaning here: the imagery of the Bible elsewhere is too explicit to be mistaken; it is the sword of the Spirit, even the word of God, which is here described; it is that word which is sharper than any two-edged sword, and which lays bare the thoughts and intents of the soul (Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:12. Comp. Isaiah 49:2). This is the weapon with which Christ will subdue His enemies; no carnal weapon is needed (2Corinthians 10:4). Those that take any other sword in hand than this to advance His kingdom will perish with the weapon to which they have appealed (Revelation 13:10; Matthew 26:52), but those who arm themselves with this will find it mighty through God. With this weapon of His word He Himself fights against His adversaries (Revelation 2:12; Revelation 2:16; Revelation 19:15; Revelation 19:21); with this He lays bare the hidden hypocrisies of men, cuts off the diseased members, and wounds that He may heal.
“The sword wherewith Thou dost command,
Is in Thy mouth and not Thy hand.”
It is a two-edged sword; it has the double edge of the Old Testament and the New; “the Old Testament, cutting externally our carnal; the New Testament, internally our spiritual sins” (Richard of St. Victor). It has the double edge of its power to rebuke sin and self-righteousness; the evil of wrong-doing and the evil motives which wait on right-doing; the two edges of which will cut off sin from man, or else man in his sin. (Comp. Isaiah 11:4, and 2Thessalonians 2:8.) The Greek word here rendered “sword” is used six times in this book, and only once (Luke 2:35) elsewhere in the New Testament.
His countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength.—It is the spiritual truth which gives the splendour to such descriptions as these. The dazzling glory of Him who is the Sun of Righteousness is intolerable to human eyes. There is no marvel in this when we remember that He is the brightness of His Father’s glory, and that the Father dwells “in that light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see” (1Timothy 6:16). It is the lustre of holiness and righteousness which is here signified, and which “the eye of sinful man may not see,” but of which saints and angel messengers may catch a faint reflection; so that the angel’s face may look like lightning (Matthew 28:3), and “the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43). (Comp. the shining of Moses’ face, Exodus 34:29.)
And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last:(17) I fell at his feet as dead.—At the sight of Him, the Evangelist fell as one dead. “Was this He whom upon earth St. John had known so familiarly? Was this He in whose bosom He had lain at that Last Supper, and said, ‘Lord, which is he that betrayeth Thee?’ When I saw Him thus transformed, thus glorified, I fell at His feet as one dead. Well might such be the effect, even upon the spirit of a just man made perfect—and St. John was still in the body—of such an open revelation of the risen glory of Christ” (Dr. Vaughan). It was pity, and the pang felt at the severity of retribution which overtook sin, which made Dante fall as a dead body falls (Inferno, v.); it is the felt consciousness of unworthiness which seems to have overcome the Evangelist. This consciousness has its witness outside the Bible as well as in it. “Semele must perish if Jupiter reveals himself to her in his glory, being consumed in the brightness of that glory.” (Comp. Exodus 33:18; Exodus 33:20, “Thou canst not see My face; for there shall no man see Me and live.”) For every man it is a dreadful thing to stand face to face with God. Yet the consciousness of this unworthiness to behold God, or to receive a near revelation of His presence, is a sign of faith, and is welcomed as such. Of him who said, “Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldest come under my roof,” Christ said, “I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel” (Matthew 8:8-10).
He laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not.—The words “unto me” should be omitted. The gesture is designed to give the assurance of comfort; the hand which was raised up to bless (Luke 24:51), which was reached forth to heal the leper, to raise the sinking Peter (Matthew 14:31), and to touch the wounded ear of Malchus, is now stretched out to reassure His servant; and the words, like those which John had heard upon the Mount of Transfiguration, and when toiling against the waves of Galilee, bid him not to be afraid. (Comp. Daniel 10:10.)
I am the first and the last.—The “last” must not be taken here to mean the least and lowest, as though it referred to our Lord’s humiliation; the last points forwards, as the first points backwards. He was before all things, and so the first; and though all things change, folded up as a vesture, yet His years shall not fail, and so He is the last. “The first because all things are from Me; the last because to Me are all things” (Richard of St. Victor). (Comp. Colossians 1:16-18; Hebrews 1:11-12.) This pre-eminence of first and last is thrice claimed for the Lord Jehovah in Isaiah (Isaiah 41:4; Isaiah 44:6; Isaiah 48:12), and thrice for the Lord Jesus in this book (in this passage, in Revelation 2:8, and Revelation 22:13).
I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.(18) I am he that liveth, and was dead.—Better, and the living One (omit the words “I am”); and I became dead; and, behold, I am alive (or, I am living) unto the ages of ages (or, for evermore), “Amen” is omitted in the best MSS. This verse must be carefully kept in connection with the preceding, as the description should go on without pause. He is the living One—not merely one who once was alive, or is now alive—but the One who has “life in Himself, and the fountain and source of life to others, John 1:4; John 14:6; the One who hath immortality,” 1Timothy 6:16 (Trench). Yet He became dead. There are two wonders here: the living One becomes dead, and the dead One is alive for evermore. It is another form of the glorious truth and paradox of which the Apostles were so fond (Philippians 2:8-9; Hebrews 2:9). Comp. Christ’s words, Luke 9:24, and Luke 13:43, which contain promises which He only could make who could say, “I have the keys of death and of Hades.” The order of these words has been transposed in our English version. The true order is the more appropriate order, “For Hades is the vast unseen realm into which men are ushered by death; dark and mysterious as that realm was, and dreaded as was its monarch, our risen Lord has both under His power. The keys are the emblems of His right and authority.” (Comp. Revelation 3:7-8.) It is not of the second death that He speaks; our Lord is here seen as the conqueror of that clouded region, and that resistless foe which man dreaded. (Comp. John 11:25; Hebrews 2:15.) Comp. Henry Vaughan’s quaint poem “An Easter Hymn”—
“Death and darkness get you packing,
Nothing now to man is lacking;
All your triumphs now are ended,
And what Adam marred is mended;
Graves are beds now for the weary,
Death a nap to wake more merry.
Christ had spoken before of the gates of hell (Matthew 16:18), and of the keys. (Comp. also 1Peter 3:19.) The key of the grave was one of the four keys which the Eternal King committed to no ministering angel, but reserved for himself (so Targum and Talmud). The whole verse affirms the undying power and inalienable authority of our Master, and is a fitting prelude to a book which is to show the inherent divine tenacity of Christianity. The Church lives on because Christ its Head lives on (John 14:19). The resurrection power which the Lord showed is to be reflected in the history of His Church. “The greatest honour is due to Christianity,” says Goethe, “for continually proving its pure and noble origin by coming forth again, after the great aberrations into which human perversity has led it, more speedily than was expected, with its primitive special charm as a mission. . . . for the relief of human necessity”
Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter;(19) Write the things which thou hast seen (better, sawest).—It is well to notice the small connecting word “then,” which has been omitted in the English. It gives the practical thought to the whole of the previous vision. This vision is to be described for the benefit of the Church of Christ, that she may never forget Him who is the foundation on which she rests; the true fountain of her life; and in whom she will find the source of that renewing power to which the last Note alludes. In the history of the faith it will be always true that they who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength (Isaiah 40:28-31). Lest, then, at any time the saints of God should be tempted to cry that “their judgment was passed over from their God,” the Evangelist is bidden first to detail this vision of Him who is the Life and Captain of His people. He is also to write the things which are—those eternal principles and truths which underlie all the phenomena of human history; or the things which concern the present state of the churches—and the things which are about to be after these things—those great and wondrous scenes of the fortunes of the Church and of the world which will be unfolded.
The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches.(20) The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand.—Having bidden him write the meaning of this mystery, or secret, He gives to St. John an explanatory key: “The seven stars are angels of seven churches (or congregations): and the seven candlesticks” (omit the words “which thou sawest”) “are seven churches.” The angels have been understood by some to be guardian angels; but it is difficult to reconcile words of warning and reproof (as in Revelation 2:4-5), and of promise and encouragement (as in Revelation 2:10), with such a view. More probable is the view which takes the angel to be the ideal embodiment (so to speak) of the Church. The more generally adopted view is that the angel is the chief pastor or bishop of the Church. The description of them as stars favours this view. Similar imagery is applied elsewhere to teachers, true and false (Daniel 12:3; Jude 1:13. Comp. Revelation 8:10; Revelation 12:4). It is stated that the word “angel” was applied to the president in the Jewish synagogue. See, however, Excursus A.